Teachers struggle with rising health coverage costs

Teachers struggle with rising health coverage costs

Michele Ellson

Carolyn Cover-Griffith leafs through a pile of old paycheck stubs to offer a sense of how her health care costs have increased over the past few years. In 2009, she was paying $790 a month for healthcare coverage for her family. This year, her payment for her family’s Blue Shield plan is nearly $1,200 a month.

Despite the cost, which the Alameda High School AP Environmental Science teacher said has eroded her take-home pay by more than $70 a month over the past three years, Cover-Griffith said she is staying on the district’s health care plan. She’s been battling cancer since 2006, and fears she could lose her doctors – or her coverage – if she opts for another plan.

“I can’t mess around,” Cover-Griffith said of her health coverage.

Alameda’s teachers are negotiating a new contract with the school district, and health care is a key issue. Both the teachers union and the district have said they’d like to discuss teacher health care, though neither has offered a specific proposal for the current round of negotiations.

The union in November asked for full health benefits, which Superintendent Kirsten Vital received when her contract was renewed in August – a sore point for teachers who have complained about their rising benefit costs. But district officials rejected the proposal as too expensive.

Alameda Education Association president Gray Harris said teachers’ health care costs have risen 50 percent over the past three years, while the district’s payments have remained the same. Rising health care costs have outstripped pay increases earned by new and experienced teachers alike, Harris said.

“I know that health care is expensive for everyone,” Harris said. “But when you think about the fact that you could work for eight more years and make the same amount of money … People just end up bringing home less and less money the longer they work.”

Vital acknowledged teachers’ health care costs are high, though she hasn’t said whether the district plans to contribute more. She and Chief Business Officer Robert Shemwell said the district is working with a contractor to determine whether there’s a way to obtain cheaper coverage.

“At that point, it really starts to become a discussion collectively between the district and the bargaining units about what that looks like,” Shemwell said.

The district’s health care contributions haven’t risen since 2008, when the district’s monthly benefit contribution increased by $81, to $667.28. Teachers signed a memorandum of understanding with the district in 2009 that largely maintained the status quo in order to focus on passing a parcel tax; it didn’t change teachers’ health benefits.

Alameda Unified’s health care costs outstrip national averages, as do the premium contributions teachers make, according to a 2011 survey of public and private employers conducted by The Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research & Educational Trust. That survey found average annual premiums for employers who offer health care plans to be $15,073 for a family plan, compared to $17,578.08 for the cheapest of the four plans offered to teachers in Alameda Unified.

Average employee contributions for health care in 2011 were 28 percent of the total cost for family coverage, the study showed, while Alameda’s teachers paid 55 percent of the total cost for the cheapest family plan offered by the district and 71 percent for its most expensive.

In California, 63 percent of employers provided health coverage in 2011, according to a separate study from the California HealthCare Foundation. The average employer contribution was $11,921 for family coverage, compared to $8,007.36 in Alameda Unified.

The district also offers $305 a month to teachers who don’t sign up for district health coverage, Shemwell said.

School districts in Alameda County are all over the map in terms of the benefits they offer teachers, with Albany Unified offering its teachers full medical coverage and several other districts giving teachers more pay in lieu of separate benefit coverage and offering medical insurance through a Section 125 plan, which allows employees to make health care contributions pre-tax.

The union has criticized the district for maintaining millions in reserves instead of giving teachers more money, but Shemwell has argued the reserve is needed to protect the district in the face of unpredictable state funding. He said he thinks that even with the growing costs, teachers here may benefit from the district’s plan when compared to their counterparts in other districts whose benefits are covered by higher salaries.

“When you put all your health benefits on the salary schedule and you have eight furlough days, you are losing salary that probably contributed to your health benefits in some way,” Shemwell said.

But Harris said Alameda teachers are particularly hard-hit by high health care costs because they are trying to absorb them while earning some of the lowest salaries in the county. Even after benefits are added, Alameda Unified’s total compensation package puts teachers here below their peers in most of the rest of the county, a chart produced by the California Teachers Association showed.

A separate chart produced by Harris showed that an Alameda teacher with 20 years’ experience and a bachelor’s degree in 2009 took home $63,352 after paying for Blue Shield health care coverage for a family, and $60,175 this year, even with pay increases for experience. Teachers with just seven years’ experience in 2012 – whose health care costs are the same as those of more experienced teachers – saw their earnings drop to $44,585 after paying for benefits, compared to $49,281 for a teacher with seven years’ experience in 2009.

The rising costs are a tough pill for even longtime teachers to swallow. Cover-Griffith, who has been at Alameda High since 2000, said she’s embarrassed to say how much money she takes home every month. She has a doctorate in molecular biology and said that while she loves teaching, she wonders if should have considered a higher-paying career.

“Oh teachers, they do it for the love of the kids,” is a refrain Cover-Griffith said she often hears. “But I’d like to pay my bills.”