Assembly probes the Health Care Independence Act

This week we were updated and debated in connection with the Health Care Independence Act, also known as the health care option, prisons, arming teachers in schools and teacher insurance. Volatile issues? You bet! The most disheartening aspect of all of these issues is the unspoken realization that more money may solve all our problems, except the problem of raising taxes. No one truly advocates that position. Where would it stop?

As far as the health care private option goes, we were assured that the state is still on target to begin enrolling qualifying Arkansans in the private option plan on October 1. The Health Care Independence Act is an Arkansas health care plan developed under the leadership of House and Senate Republicans, among others, that allows federal Medicaid dollars to pay insurance premiums for any individual or family making below 138% of the federal poverty level. Persons making above that amount may be income—eligible to also choose an insurance plan from the insurance marketplace, and receive some financial assistance with premiums, depending on your income. (As I understand it, those receiving assistance must meet income requirements AND must not have insurance available at their workplace.)

Although enrollment doesn’t begin until October, I am told consumers may begin to shop and compare plans available through the Health Insurance Marketplace at www.arhealthconnector.org. For local residents, Mainline Health Clinics will be holding informational meetings to help explain all of this. Two will be held in Monticello: (1) September 12 at the Chamber office from 1-3 p.m. and (2) October 3 at the Monticello library from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. The meetings are open to the public.   

The major goals of the private option health care program were (1) to improve access to quality health care, (2) to offset negative impacts to businesses facing tax penalties under the federal laws, and (3) to help reduce our growing Medicaid rolls.  (Even before the plan goes into effect, we have had the slowest rate of growth in Medicaid expenses in over 30 years. Coincidence or result?) I hope the private option Arkansas plan works because it may be our best state shot. I do trust there is enough flexibility built in to “modify-and-adjust” if and when it becomes necessary. 

On another issue, two days were spent in discussions with Arkansas Department of Corrections personnel about prison overcrowding, the results of the prison reform measures in Act 570 and like issues. Both sides seemed to agree that too many may have been paroled too soon as a result of Act 570. This act was conceived as a way of prison reforms to ease overcrowding in prisons, but may have resulted in other measures that “let some out” too hastily and too many of these later had to “return” to prison and further crowd prison space. No solution was reached and further reports and examinations will follow.

Emotional discussions were also held to discuss arming teachers in classrooms for security purposes in light of Attorney General Dustin McDaniel’s ruling to discourage/ disallow this. While some schools said this is “cheaper”, or more cost effective, than hiring trained personnel just for that purpose, some worry that this may not be the best use of teachers in classrooms. Safety of teachers and students, as well as liability, is paramount among the concerns with arming teachers. As I said, this is a highly emotional and volatile issue that requires much, much more rational thought.

Now we turn to teacher insurance and the extremely high rate increases. Teacher insurance has always been costly, in my estimation. After the first few years that I taught, I dropped it and stayed on my husband’s plan, because it was much, much more affordable, for the remainder of my 30 years in the classroom. (Actually I am told that only about 65% of the states’ teachers use the school insurance plans now.) Later I even took out a private policy to get better rates. I understand the teachers’ woes. 

This week I have attended several meetings/group sessions as to why and what we can do about the problem. Some legislators are exploring several avenues and will likely, with the support of others, do “something” in the February session to try to seek a permanent fix and not a Band-aid one-time solution.  We tried that in the last session and this was a result.  We care about your plight—most of us. I surely do because I still consider myself a teacher. Teaching should be a calling and not just a job. Once a real teacher, always a teacher. I feel about teaching like Jethro Gibbs feels about the Marines!

I have managed to get one question answered. The question: why can’t teachers be on the state employee plan? The answer: teachers aren’t state employees. State employees are hired by, fired by and work for the state. Teachers are hired by, fired by, and work for the individual school districts. They are district or school employees. I was told that we follow state laws or guidelines, as do all citizens, but we are not state employees.

Insurance rates always seem to be rising, as are other costs, and salary increases seldom seem to keep up with them. However, state government now subsidizes teacher health insurance annually with about $50,000,000. It is distributed to the schools and they set their school budgets. As I understand it, districts must contribute $131 ($150 next year) per month for each teacher who carries the school insurance from this fund. Any excess beyond that is discretionary. Some schools contribute the minimum amount ($131/$150); others contribute more. Some may even use any extra funds for raises. Funding formulas, rules and regulations are often difficult to understand, but rest assured, teachers, we are working on your problem with intentions of finding a more permanent solution. Please exercise the infinite patience I know you possess. 

There will be a joint meeting of both House and Senate Education committees and House and Senate Insurance and Commerce committees held on September 9 at the Capitol. Your insurance rates are scheduled to be the main topic of discussion. The meeting is open to the public. 

This concludes my report for this week. Thank you for allowing me to represent you. I am hanging in there. “See” you next week!

The Advance-Monticellonian

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Monticello, AR 71657

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Monticello, AR 71655

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