By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications
Let’s give credit to Sen. Jim Hendren, Rep. Harold Copenhaver, and other legislators – not because they necessarily made the right decisions, but because they definitely made the tough ones.
Hendren, R-Gravette, and Copenhaver, D-Jonesboro, are leading a task force charged with reforming the school employee health insurance system, which is a mess. Costs are rising so fast that the Legislature twice has had to meet in special session – last year to pour money into the system as a quick fix, this past week to reduce spending. Many school employees have been paying too much for premiums and others not nearly enough. The big fear is that the system will tumble into a death spiral where, as costs rise, more and more young, healthy employees opt out, eventually leaving only older, less healthy employees in the pool. No insurance fund can survive that.
Bills passed by the Legislature this past week, as well as other actions based on recommendations by the task force, are expected to reduce a potential 35 percent premium increase into an average 3 percent increase, assuming the plans don’t change much. Significantly more work remains to stabilize the system long term.
The most noteworthy legislation removed 4,000 part-time school employees from being eligible for school health insurance.
That’s a tough one. As Rep. Sue Scott, R-Rogers, pointed out in a hearing, these employees include bus drivers and cafeteria workers – the people who offer some students their first smile of the day, or who serve an extra helping of lunch to those they know don’t get fed enough at home. Some of these employees work for schools precisely because it offers them the best health insurance they can get.
Hendren and Copenhaver explained their reasoning during the lead-in to the session. Cuts had to be made in order to prevent premium increases for everyone. Part-timers rarely receive health insurance benefits in the private sector, and schools should be no different. Because school districts are saving money on insurance, they will have more flexibility in giving some employees full-time responsibilities, thereby making them eligible. Those who lose their insurance will have other options, including the “private” one passed by the Legislature that uses Medicaid dollars to buy insurance for low-income Arkansans.
Opponents countered that the private option’s future remains in doubt. It passed with zero Senate votes to spare in the fiscal session earlier this year. Two additional opponents of the program have already won Republican Party primaries and are headed to the Senate. Hendren himself has consistently voted against it.
Removing part-time employees from eligibility was not an ideal solution, and there may or may not have been a better way, but at least lawmakers acted, and for that they deserve praise. In crafting this and other parts of the legislation, they made hard choices about how to responsibly allocate finite resources for a critical need, rather than putting off those choices and letting others deal with the consequences. Hendren, a Republican, and Copenhaver, a Democrat, could have played partisan games with the issue. It doesn’t appear that thought ever occurred to them.
Congress, please take note.
Choices are hardest when they involve one of two scenarios. In one, the options are all so wonderful – like a menu in a good Mexican restaurant – that the mind locks up. In the other, the options are all so distasteful that it’s hard picking one over the other.
In politics, it’s usually the latter. Nobody wants to take insurance from part-time school employees, but, given the fact that school starts soon and time was limited for making more foundational changes, legislators decided it was a better bad choice than raising rates for everyone. As Copenhaver told representatives, “Some people say this is a Band-Aid. Well, I say what we did last session is a Band-Aid. We covered it up by providing funding. We have now taken that Band-Aid off, and it is somewhat painful.”
If it was the right decision, it will help stabilize the fund. If it was the wrong one, legislators can reverse course when they meet again in January. But you can’t reverse course when you’re not going anywhere. Again, Congress, please take note.