281 Teachers Protest Increased Health Insurance Costs

From the MN Sun-Post 11/29/07 edition:

A 125-percent increase in 2008 insurance premiums brought a standing-room-only, overflow crowd of more than 100 teachers to the Robbinsdale District 281 School boardroom on Nov. 19.

Though no official listening hour was scheduled, the teachers were given 40 minutes prior to the board’s regular meeting to state their case. Additionally, a 45-minute meeting on the issue was scheduled for Nov. 26 at Cooper High School, after this edition of the Sun-Post went to press.

Brian Dahlen, a social studies teacher at Cooper High School, told the board Nov. 19 that full-time employees will be paying 125 percent more – as much as $1,660 per month for some – for health insurance in 2008.

“This is a gigantic insurance crisis for employees,” Dahlen said. “It will be impossible for many of us to continue working here.”

Dahlen said employee premiums increased 364 percent between 2006 and 2008, while the district experienced an 8.8 percent increase in the portion it pays for each employee.

“That’s an unfair burden on the employees,” he said.

Although Board Chair Patsy Green announced at the outset of the impromptu gathering that the board would listen to the teachers’ concerns but not comment, Board Member Helen Bassett said, “You understand we are with you.

“We are all touched,” Bassett said. “We have to work toward a solution.”

Superintendent Stan Mack and Assistant Superintendent Nancy Rajanen were unavailable for comment last week. Jeff Dehler, District 281’s community-relations program director, confirmed the 125-percent increase.

Dehler said the huge premium increases were expected for the first two years of the self-funded insurance program. He acknowledged that “there will be some real hardship stories.”

“We don’t want that for our employees,” Dehler said. “We needed to do a better job of communicating that it was coming, and we’re sorry we didn’t do that. We needed to give people time to find other options.”

For more coverage of the district’s health insurance program, see the article on Page 1, “Self-funded insurance was supposed to combat skyrocketing health care costs.”

Failure to address in the insurance crisis, Dahlen said, will result in a “forced exodus of good staff members.”

He predicted the district would find it difficult to recruit qualified employees if insurance premiums continue to climb.

As families are driven to publicly funded options, Dahlen said, they would experience increasing stress in their personal and professional lives.

Dahlen has a master’s degree and has taught in District 281 for six years. He and his wife have two children and are expecting their third child in March.

“No other insurance company will take us because my wife’s pregnancy is a pre-existing condition,” he said. “We’re down to one car; we have no Internet and no cable TV. As we approach this year’s increase, it is absolutely way beyond the potential of our budget. It will be a $600 increase per month for me.”

Dahlen and his family will apply for medical assistance from Hennepin County, he said.

“With a master’s degree and six years of teaching experience, I never expected to have to do that,” he said. “It will be morally difficult to fill out the forms. I will need to change jobs to support my family.”

Michelle Banker, a 10-year English teacher at Cooper, said she is a single mother with two sons whose insurance costs will increase from $523 to $1,200 per month.

“I will try to find a private insurance carrier,” she said. “If I can’t, I will have to leave the district. I literally cannot afford to stay.”

Renee Andryski, an education assistant in her 14th year with the district, said she earns $14.53 per hour at Cooper High School and will have to send the district a check to cover her insurance coverage each month, in addition to the premium that will be subtracted from her paycheck. Her payments will go from $571.96 now to $1,225 per month, she said.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Andryski said. “I just want to pay my electric bill. I’m 50; I don’t want to leave the district. Who is going to hire me? I don’t have a master’s degree. Something has to be done.”

Mike Gerads, a Cooper math teacher who has four children, ages 2 to 10, said his annual health-insurance premium would go up $8,000 in 2008.

Dahlen criticized the process and timing the district used to inform employees of health-care changes, and called for a 60-day advance notice regarding all plan and premium changes, plus quarterly reports on actual usage rates. He said new rates and information were presented to employees Nov. 8, and that forms are due by Nov. 30. He requested a resolution of the problem prior to the end of the open enrollment period on Nov. 30.

“The district has never given us instructions on how to be better consumers,” Dahlen said. “We need to be told how to drive the costs down, if possible.”

Dehler said the district would continue to accept late submission of health insurance forms, beyond the Nov. 30 deadline.

Regarding health-care consumer education, Dahlen said, employees were told to eat an apple, walk the dog and self-diagnose their illnesses.

“That was incredibly disrespectful,” he said.

One single teacher in the group – who did not identify herself – said she fears she will lose the home she has been struggling to maintain for 20 years.

“I am 60 years old,” she said. “Where will I go? What will I do? It’s too hard to think about.”

In recent contract negotiations with District 281, teachers were told to anticipate a 32-percent increase in insurance premiums in 2008, said Peter Eckhoff, president of the Robbinsdale Federation of Teachers, the union for District 281’s 1,000 teachers.

What has resulted, he said in a telephone interview last week, “is horrific. It’s beyond devastating.”

“I don’t know how families can sustain themselves,” Eckhoff said. “An awful lot of people will be affected very drastically. They just lost one-third of their take-home pay.”

His own suggestion, Eckhoff said, would be to consider the wisdom of continuing the present open-access plans available to employees.

“There are no restrictions on where people can get their health services, and they can self-refer to specialists,” he said.

He suggested also researching whether the Minnesota Public Employees insurance plan could give District 281 an independent evaluation and bid.

“That may confirm what’s happening, or find potential savings,” he said.

Eckhoff said he and others worked hard to pass a statewide health insurance plan for teachers, which ultimately was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

“I hope the school board will get on board with us and support that in 2008,” Eckhoff said. “Last year, they did not. Robbinsdale is one of the sad stories. No matter who looks at it, the cost is astronomical.”

Eckhoff said he is not aware of any school district in the area that “comes close to this level of burden.”

“Wayzata School District has been self-insured for five years, and they will have a small single-digit increase this year,” he said.

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One Response to “281 Teachers Protest Increased Health Insurance Costs”

  1. Dean Calvert Says:

    Good info. and reading. I would definitely bookmark you to check for new updates.

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