By Elizabeth Fitzgerald
Vermonters recognize that one of our most important public responsibilities is the education of our children. Not only is it a moral and legal imperative, but it is also critical for the economic future of our state. Providing a high-quality education for Vermont children means that we must make sure that those who choose to work in our schools are fairly compensated for the work they do. A large and growing share of that compensation is the high quality, generous health insurance that is provided by school districts to teachers and other education employees.
As is the case for many Vermont employers, health insurance and other benefits can help attract, recruit and retain a committed, high quality workforce. Yet the state, just like all businesses and households, must live and work within our means. In order for health insurance benefits to remain high quality and generous they must also be affordable for the taxpayer. The balancing of these two factors is the task before the Commission on Public School Employee Health Benefits.
The Commission was mandated by the legislature to determine the relative shares of health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket expenses that should be paid by Vermont school districts and their employees. This is the first time in the state’s history that a statewide healthcare benefit for education employees has been negotiated. Previously, health care benefits had been determined through collective bargaining by each school district, so negotiating a single statewide agreement is not an easy task. Unfortunately, the school boards and the school employee unions have been unable to reach an agreement since beginning meeting in April. The two sides are now engaging in mediation in an effort to reach a resolution. While some minor issues were agreed upon in our first mediation session the major task before us to agree upon generous health care benefits that are also affordable for taxpayers remains.
During the bargaining process, the school board representatives presented a proposal that reflects our commitment to providing high quality, generous benefits to our educators and school staff. The benefits we have put forward in our proposal would provide health care benefits that are on average the equivalent of platinum plus on the exchange. They are high-quality, generous benefits.
The proposal also reflects our commitment to ensure these benefits are financially viable for taxpayers. Healthcare costs have been outpacing inflation for years. The last two years saw an even sharper increase in health insurance rates with annual double-digit growth. This year is looking similarly grim with both Blue Cross and Blue Shield and MVP Health Care asking regulators for another round of double digit increases for their Vermont Health Connect plans. The Commission is not going to reduce health care costs – that is not possible in our role nor is it our job. But it is absolutely critical that the agreement we reach with school employees results in health insurance benefits that may be more sustainable for taxpayers into the future.
The union representatives on the Commission have so far been unwilling to provide data on how much their proposal will increase costs to taxpayers, despite previous requests for this crucial information. What we do know is that the unions’ proposal will cost taxpayers more.
While we are disappointed the Commission was unable to reach an agreement because the union commission representatives were unable to provide an analysis of the increased cost of their plan, we remain committed to working for a resolution through the mediation process.
Negotiating a statewide health benefit for the first time is a complex task, and we have only one chance to get it right. At the end of these negotiations, our educators and school employees will continue to receive the high quality, generous benefits they deserve. It is our hope – and our expectation – that these benefits will also be affordable for Vermont taxpayers who are footing the bill. We are confident that through mediation we will reach a resolution that balances both of these commitments.
Elizabeth Fitzgerald is the Employer Chair of the Commission on Public School Employee Health Benefits. She is also Chair of the South Burlington School Board.