Tag Archives: health care

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: Nov. 2, 2018

Here’s your weekly wrap-up of education news from ATPE Governmental Relations:


Carl Garner

In the weeks prior to the upcoming midterm elections, many people across the state have been bombarded with a slew of campaign ads featuring members of both parties vying for the votes of the general public. One such ad features Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick discussing a $10,000 raise that he alleges he championed for educators. But there’s a problem: no such thing ever happened. ATPE Past State President Carl Garner quashes  that claim and explains why such rhetoric is offensive in this guest post.

 

 

 

 

 


Over the past two weeks of early voting we’ve been highlighting what’s at stake for educators in the 2018 midterm elections. This past week we’ve examined a myriad of issues like why it’s important to elect pro-public education candidates to the State Board of Education and why vouchers are a threat to public schools. Over the years, teachers have had to deal with a barrage of attacks: attempts to limit their ability to join professional associations, school funding cuts, and exorbitant increases in health care costs, to name a few. That has made an already demanding job that much more difficult. With Nov. 6 a few days away, it’s time for educators to asses the hand they’ve been dealt and whether the legislature is holding up its end of the bargain; then vote accordingly.

Read more from the 12 Days of Voting series:

 


Governor Abbott showcased his plan to patch up the state’s school finance system to business leaders and educators earlier this week. Without having received the recommendations of the Commission on Public School Finance, which has not yet concluded its work (although it is expected to report its findings by the end of this year), Abbott has proposed a plan that would limit the amount of property tax revenue school districts can raise and would give school districts financial rewards for improving student performance. The proposal gave pause to Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), vice chair of the House Public Education Committee. Bernal had this to say with regards to the proposal:

“It would be a shame if school finance was merely a Trojan horse for his property tax agenda,” he said. “What that means is that it’s not about the students at all.”

Read more about the proposal and see the text of the document in this article by the Texas Tribune. 

 

 


12 Days of Voting: Healthcare

Early voting is underway NOW for the November 6 elections, so we’re taking a look at some of the reasons why it’s so important that educators vote TODAY! In this post, we’re taking a closer look at healthcare.


Believe it or not, Texas spends less than any other state on employee benefits, funding them only at about $967 per pupil, which includes the cost of health insurance. In fact, Texas spends less than our neighboring states Oklahoma and New Mexico, which are both under the national average as well but are spending $1,505 and $1,905 per pupil respectively, despite having significantly less wealth per capita than Texas (U.S. Census Bureau, Public Education Finances: 2014, G14-ASPEF, released May 2016).

The ever-increasing amount of money being taken out of educators’ paychecks for healthcare is primarily due to the fact that state funding and state-mandated district funding for health insurance, including the TRS-ActiveCare plan used by many districts for their employees, has remained unchanged since the program began some 17 years ago.

When the Legislature first decided to subsidize teacher health insurance premiums back in 2001, the $225 contribution for each employee (made up of $75 from the state and $150 from the school district) was in line with what private employers were paying toward healthcare for their employees. Since that time, health insurance inflation generally has been between eight and ten percent per year, and educator premiums have increased more than 250 percent. Also during that time frame, many private employers have increased what they pay toward employee health insurance premiums, but Texas’s funding of the healthcare program for public school employees has fallen way behind.

Legislative inaction has now led to an insurance program for school district employees that is more burdensome than beneficial, and for many educators, it amounts to a pay cut year after year. Back In Nov. 2014, the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) released its TRS-Care Sustainability and TRS-ActiveCare Affordability Study that was commissioned by the 83rd legislature. It outlined numerous options for lawmakers to consider in dealing with the looming healthcare crisis for educators. Despite those recommendations, the legislature has largely ignored exploding healthcare costs for active employees.

One reason the legislature has neglected to address active school employees’ healthcare costs, including during the most recent 2017 legislative sessions, is the sad fact that the state’s health insurance program for retired educators, TRS-Care, is in even worse shape. After years of inadequately funding retirees’ health insurance, the legislature has now faced back-to-back sessions in which the program was at risk of running out of money and collapsing in on itself —a prospect that would leave hundreds of thousands of retired educators with no health insurance, dramatically limiting their access to healthcare when they most need it.

Back in 2015, the 84th Texas legislature opted not to address the funding formulas that determine how our state pays for TRS-Care. Instead, they made a $700 million supplemental appropriation to keep TRS-Care afloat for one more budget cycle.

By the time the 85th legislature arrived in Austin in January 2017, the TRS-Care shortfall had ballooned to $1.2 billion. Again, lawmakers were unwilling to address the underlying funding formulas, and they similarly declined to make even a one-time appropriation to cover the full cost. Instead, the Senate under the guidance of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sen. Joan Huffman, who chaired the Senate Committee on State Affairs that oversees TRS, pushed forward a plan that cut the cost of TRS-Care to the state by shifting more costs to retirees.

It’s worth noting that retired educators have not seen a cost of living adjustment to increase their pensions for over a decade, during which time they’ve also had to endure dramatic reductions in their healthcare benefits as a result of restructuring of the health insurance plan to save costs. That combination of dwindling purchasing power due to the effects of inflation on stagnant pension payments and crushing new healthcare costs caused such an outcry from retired educators that by the time legislators came back to Austin in the summer of 2017 for a special session, they felt compelled to put a modest amount of one-time extra dollars into the system to temporarily soften the blow of the impending changes to TRS-Care. However, those additional one-time funds were only a short-term band-aid on a much larger problem that remains.

Even with the draconian measures taken by the 85th legislature, resulting in significant rate hikes for many plan participants, TRS-Care is projected still to have a funding shortfall that will have to be addressed by the 86th legislature. In other words, lawmakers must act in 2019 if TRS-Care is to continue to exist for retired educators

Finding real solutions to the crisis of access to affordable healthcare for the state’s active and retired educators is a complex and expensive task. It cannot and will not be achieved by legislators whose singular priority is creating the appearance of cutting state spending without solving the problems faced by our state’s more than one million active and retired school employees. The elections that will determine who occupies those critical legislative seats and will have the power to decide the future of healthcare funding for educators are happening right now. Active and retired public school employees who have dedicated their lives to serving and educating our 5.4 million young Texans have the power to shape the outcome of this battle simply by voting on Nov. 6.


Go to the CANDIDATES section of our Teach the Vote website to find out where officeholders and candidates in your area stand on this and other public education issues.

Remind your colleagues also about the importance of voting and making informed choices at the polls. While it is illegal to use school district resources (like your work e-mail) to communicate information that supports or opposes specific candidates or ballot measures, there is NO prohibition on sharing nonpartisan resources and general “get out of the vote” reminders about the election.

Early voting in the 2018 general election runs Monday, October 22, through Friday, November 2. Election Day is November 6, but there’s no reason to wait. Get out there and use your educator voice by casting your vote TODAY!

ATPE testifies on educator healthcare

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Article III, which oversees the public education budget, met Wednesday at the Texas Capitol to discuss interim charges related to TRS-Care. Chairman Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) began by noting the roughly $1 billion shortfall facing the system heading into the 2017 legislative session, which lawmakers only partially filled. Without those funds, the system would have been insolvent. The program faces another shortfall heading into the 2019 session, which begins in January.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter testifies before House Appropriations Article III Subcommittee September 5, 2018.

Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas Executive Director Brian Guthrie estimated that the fiscal year ending in 2021 will face a roughly $410 million shortfall, which is down from previous projections. Guthrie explained that TRS-Care is funded as a percentage of payroll, which is not growing at the same rate as health care costs. This is the fundamental reason why TRS-Care has begun to face repeated shortfalls. Retirees have born additional costs as a result of the underfunding, and roughly 30,000 have chosen to leave the program because they can no longer afford to participate.

Guthrie suggested that the best case scenario for TRS-Care would be for the legislature to appropriate an amount more than is needed to simply keep the fund solvent, the excess of which could become the corpus of an investment fund that would be able to provide long-term funding stability, similar to the TRS pension trust fund.

ATPE Lobbyist Monty Exter credited the House and Chairman Ashby in particular for preventing the collapse of TRS-Care last session. Exter suggested allocating additional dollars to the base funding formulas for TRS-Care, as opposed to providing supplemental funding each biennium. Exter shared a story from a retiree whose incontinence medication shot up to $500 after the most recent TRS-Care changes. To that end, Exter suggested expanding the list of free and near-free medications, particularly in maintenance drug categories. In addition, allowing retirees access to café plans or health savings accounts (HSA) would allow retirees to allocate tax-deferred dollars on the front to help with budgeting towards their annual deductible. Finally, Exter noted that preventing retirees from leaving TRS-Care or banning them from returning after testing other private plans violates free market principles and harms consumers.

Beyond TRS-Care, Exter warned of problems associated with TRS-ActiveCare and the pain experienced by active educators who are seeing health care costs rise more quickly than their paychecks. The 86th Texas Legislature will also be faced with issues relating to the TRS pension fund. Both will vie with TRS-Care for attention and resources.

Chairman Ashby indicated that the changes to TRS-Care have generated enormous attention, and voiced optimism that this will lead to positive outcomes for both active and retired educators’ health care next session.

House committee discusses teacher pensions, health care

The House Committee on Pensions met Thursday morning in Dallas to discuss items listed under the committee’s interim charges, including the Teacher Retirement System (TRS) of Texas.

The committee met in the chambers of the Dallas City Council, which oversees pensions for the city’s police and firefighters that have come under scrutiny as of late. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings was the first witness to testify, thanking the committee for legislation dealing with issues pertaining to Dallas police and firefighter pensions and updating members on changes the city has put in place since the legislation’s passage.

House Pensions Committee meeting May 10, 2018 in Dallas.

Executive Director Brian Guthrie testified for TRS, laying out the basics of the $152 billion trust fund that serves 1.5 million active and retired members. The fund earned a return of 12.6 percent for fiscal year (FY) 2017, under an assumed rate of return of 8 percent. The fund carries $35.5 billion of unfunded liability and is 80.5 percent funded with an amortization period of 32.2 years, which Guthrie noted will change if the assumed rate of return is lowered. TRS manages two major healthcare programs: TRS-ActiveCare for active teachers and TRS-Care for retirees. Guthrie testified that TRS undertook a study in 2013 looking at the fund’s defined benefit structure, and will be producing an updated study this fall.

Turning to health care, Guthrie described TRS-Care as a “pay as you go plan.” The state’s contribution to the plan is 1.25 percent of active employee payroll, while school districts contribute .75 of active employee payroll and active employees contribute .65 percent of their paycheck. Retirees contribute to the plan through premiums. The plan faced a $1 billion projected budget shortfall heading into the last legislative session, and lawmakers of the 85th Texas Legislature put $700 million into the system in order to keep the fund from folding. While the infusion was able to prevent retirees from losing their health care, it wasn’t enough to avoid increases in costs and reductions in benefits.

Even with the changes, which included increasing premiums, the fund faces a $400-600 shortfall heading into the next biennium and ongoing shortfalls moving forward. Guthrie attributed the increase to legislation accompanying the added funding that directed the agency to ease cost increases. Guthrie indicated the primary problem is with the fundamental design of the funding formula, noting that healthcare costs are increasing far more quickly than revenue received from active employee payroll, which is the basis for the funding formula.

The largest cost increases are associated with plans that include coverage for dependents, and TRS initially offered retirees the option of permanently leaving TRS-Care for an insurance plan on the private market. Chairman Dan Flynn (R-Canton), members of the committee and legislators representing the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex pressed Guthrie to find a way to protect benefits, in particular prescription drug costs. Guthrie testified that the agency is studying all possible avenues, but the fund design presents the largest challenge.

Finally, Guthrie explained TRS-ActiveCare as a group insurance program for small to midsize school districts that would be otherwise unable to provide their own insurance programs. The state provides $75 per member, per month through the school finance formulas, districts contribute a minimum of $150 per month, and individual members are responsible for the remainder. Minimum state and district contribution levels have not changed since the plan’s inception in 2002, and employees’ share of the premiums has increased to 60 percent from 30 percent over the last 14 years. Because of rising healthcare costs, TRS board members voted at their most recent meeting to raise premiums for individual members between five and nine percent, or seven percent on average.

Because TRS-ActiveCare is funded through the school finance formulas, Guthrie suggested that any changes to TRS-ActiveCare would best be addressed as part of lawmakers’ broader efforts to reform the school finance system.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty (R-Houston) sharply questioned Guthrie over the board’s anticipated July vote to lower the fund’s assumed rate of return to 7.5 percent from 8.0 percent, despite returning 12.6 percent for FY 2017. This would cost an additional $1.2 billion on top of the $400-600 extra needed for TRS-Care, for a total ask of $1.6 billion on top of the $3 billion in base funding already designated for TRS. Guthrie testified that the agency’s fiduciary responsibility requires staff to provide an accurate estimate of what the fund is anticipated to produce.

A representative from Arlington ISD asked the board to consider allowing school districts with more than 1,000 employees to opt out of TRS-ActiveCare and provide their own insurance programs, pointing out that family healthcare costs under the TRS-ActiveCare high-deductible plan could account for more than a third of a first-year teacher’s annual salary. Chairman Huberty noted that such an arrangement could adversely impact TRS funding by reducing the broader pool of active TRS members.

Texas Retired Teachers Association (TRTA) Executive Director Tim Lee thanked the Texas Legislature for making the minimum changes necessary to keep TRS-Care from failing entirely. Lee suggested that 14 years may have been too long to go without increasing premiums, and pointed to the Employee Retirement System (ERS) as an appropriate benchmark for TRS. Going forward, Lee testified the only long-term solution is pre-funding the program, which would be even more costly than migrating TRS members to ERS. Lee indicated that retirees will be unable to countenance further cost increases, and noted that 36,400 people have decided to leave TRS-Care for the individual market.

Staff from the Pension Review Board (PRB) testified regarding the agency’s efforts to improve defined benefit programs. The board has ordered staff to develop an online dashboard of Texas public pension data, to study potential legislative recommendations regarding how systems whose funding is set by legislative statute can respond to changes in market systems, to study how systems of scale could be utilized to improve groups of smaller plans, and to conduct intensive actuarial reviews of systems with risk that threaten their long-term stability. PRB staff noted that ERS has already lowered its estimated rate of return to 7.5 percent from 8 percent, which TRS is currently contemplating.

The committee then opened the table to public testimony, and dozens of retired teachers voiced their concerns regarding healthcare and the defined benefit structure of the TRS pension program. Many shared heartbreaking stories of seeing fixed incomes virtually consumed by skyrocketing premiums even before paying the increased costs for services and medication. Retirees also expressed concerns regarding changes to the assumed rate of return.