by Martha Allen
Facts matter. As a 30-year school teacher, I could spot a mile away the students who didn’t do their homework despite the availability of resources they could have used to prove their points.
Sadly, I can now spot politicians and others who obviously didn’t do their homework when they assert that proposed increases in the costs of health insurance for our state’s educators are somehow the fault of local school boards and local teachers.
Earlier this month, the Vermont Education Health Initiative — the administrator of the health insurance plans offered to all public school employees — announced that it was seeking an increase in next year’s premiums (about 10 percent for the plan most educators will choose). Almost like clockwork, certain politicians and the Vermont School Boards Association blamed the increase on the cost-sharing agreements local boards and their local educators are making.
Quite simply that’s — in a word I was never afraid to use with unprepared students — hogwash.
The cost of health insurance is driven not by how local boards and local educators divvy up their shares of premiums and out-of-pocket costs; rather, the real causes of ever-escalating health insurance costs are medical inflation and the gross inefficiencies in our current national approach to health care.
The women and men who teach Vermont’s children — as well as local school boards — are easy targets for austerity-minded politicians and, sadly, the VSBA. Cries of “if only we took away the right of local boards to negotiate health insurance cost-sharing with their employees we could have saved millions” play well. But that doesn’t make them accurate.
VEHI’s rate increase, in context, is right in the middle of previous increases sought over the decades. (For context, three years ago the state employees’ health plans experienced an increase of nearly 17 percent; just a few months ago, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont sought an almost 13 percent increase for its Health Connect plans.) In other words, what’s so remarkable about VEHI’s rate request is that it is not remarkable.
Health insurance costs are out of control in the United States. Prescription drug prices and hospital costs soar, year after year. Add up state and federal mandates, assessments, and fees, and you’ll see that the system itself virtually guarantees annual spikes in the cost of insurance.
To be sure, part of VEHI’s rate increase request stems from changes in assumptions that were made last year that, as contracts around the state settle, are proving to be wrong. But what isn’t driving rate increases is the way boards and local educators are splitting their respective share of the cost of health insurance.
I know the school boards association wanted to use the state’s educators in their “skin-in-the-game” petri dish, arguing that only if teachers were forced to use more of their own money, they’d use less health care. The facts, however, show that in any given year, most Vermont school employees use very little health care. In 2016, for example, ranking active school employees and their dependents by health care expenditures, the bottom 50 percent averaged just under $624 worth of medical care. Eight percent, on average, didn’t incur a claim at all. Not surprisingly, the biggest users of health insurance were those with the most medical need: 1 percent of school employees accounted for 31 percent of health expenditures last year. In other words, Vermont’s teachers and support staff are already prudent when it comes to health care.
We do have a health care expense problem in Vermont and throughout America. My fellow educators and I — and our local school boards — are not the reason for that. It’s time to have a national conversation about joining the rest of the developed world in our approach to health care.
Martha Allen, a K-12 librarian who serves as the president of Vermont-NEA, lives in Canaan.