Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012 | 10:56 p.m.
Even though health care costs have risen dramatically, the Teachers Health Trust hasn’t raised health care insurance premiums for Las Vegas public schoolteachers in a decade.
That was set to change, but not if the Clark County School District has anything to say about it.
That’s the message Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones sent to teachers union leaders Thursday as the union’s nonprofit health trust called on the district to take additional money out of teachers’ paychecks starting Friday to pay for health care cost increases. It’s an action that district officials contend is illegal and violates its contract with teachers.
Founded in 1983 as part of an agreement between the union and the district, the Teachers Health Trust provides health insurance to more than 17,000 Clark County schoolteachers. The welfare benefit trust, which has an annual budget of $150 million, is funded in large part by the School District, but the union bargains on the trust’s behalf.
Since July 2008, the cash-strapped School District has given $116 million to the health trust to maintain its $546-per-teacher monthly premiums. Teachers with the more expensive “diamond” plan paid $50 extra in monthly premiums. Teachers on the cheaper “platinum” plan paid no extra premium.
However, with an increase in health care costs, driven in part by the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the Teachers Health Trust no longer can dip into its reserve funds to subsidize rising costs, trust CEO Peter Alpert said. Health care costs have risen by at least 25 percent since 2008, he said.
“We have adequate reserves, but you have to run a health plan for the long term,” Alpert said. “Using up your reserves is the last thing you want to do. We can’t operate like this anymore.”
That’s why the trust informed the School District last month that it will need to take an additional $5 to $8 from teachers’ biweekly paychecks, translating to as much as a $192 increase in annual premiums.
Despite the rising cost, teachers’ health care benefits will be reduced. Under the trust’s new health care plan, teachers will be required to pay higher co-pays and will have limited access to diagnostic labs and pharmacies.
However, the School District said the health trust cannot unilaterally take money out of teachers’ paychecks without first negotiating with the district as outlined by state law and the district’s contract with the teachers union.
“The district has no legal authority to make the requested payroll deductions,” School District attorney Carlos McDade said in an Aug. 3 letter to Alpert. “The district will not deduct any amounts from employee salaries beyond the current deductions.”
The School District is considering filing a complaint with the state’s Employee Management Relations Board to settle the matter and may seek a court injunction to block any changes to medical benefits that aren’t negotiated.
“I get that health care costs are going up, so I’m not against negotiating,” Jones said. “But I’m just saying you can’t direct the district to just do it. We don’t even have the authority to do it.”
Jones points to article 28 in the teachers’ contract, which states that “any proposed substantive benefit changes (including without limitation increased participant contributions, reductions in benefits or increases in benefits)” be negotiated first with the district.
“It has to be agreed to by the trustees and (the union’s) membership,” Jones said. “I think you’ve got to be transparent about that. You can’t tell your members you have no say-so.”
However, Alpert said he doesn’t see the trust’s proposed premium increase of $192 per year as a “substantive benefit change.” He also contends the health trust still offers superior benefits to the School District’s private health insurance plan, provided through UnitedHealthcare.
“We do it cheaper, and we do a better job,” Alpert said.
Furthermore, in the 22 years Alpert has been with the Teachers Health Trust, he said he’s never had any issues making changes to the teachers’ health care plan.
“We have been doing business with the district for 29 years, and we’ve always had an excellent working relationship ... until now,” Alpert said. “They’ve done a complete turnaround. I’m frankly shocked.”
The union’s executive director, John Villardita, said the School District’s motive in threatening legal action against the Teachers Health Trust is political. Last year, the School District fought to consolidate its four unions representing administrators, police, support staffers and teachers into using one provider: UnitedHealthcare.
Although the School District eventually backed off the Teachers Health Trust issue after resistance from the teachers union, Vellardita said he is convinced the district is trying to undermine the health trust to force the issue again.
“The district’s action is designed to create financial instability in the Teachers Health Trust,” Vellardita said. “The purpose is to bleed the Teachers Health Trust dry so they can move teachers to a private health insurance plan.”
Jones said he’s backed off the Teachers Health Trust but said he is willing to have a conversation about whether it may be cheaper for the district’s four unions to be on the same insurance plan.
At a School Board meeting Thursday night, health insurance was on the minds of union leaders for teachers and support staffers who attended the last summer meeting before children head back to school Monday.
Cannon Middle School teacher Lisa Muntean, also the teachers union’s negotiation chairwoman, echoed Vellardita’s sentiments to School Board members.
Muntean also urged School Board members to consider the fact that teachers will bear the brunt of increased health care costs, not the district.
“The money that we’re spending is our own money,” Muntean said. “This has nothing to do with district money.”
Following Muntean was John Carr, president of the Education Support Employees Association. The support staff union has health insurance through the district’s plan with UnitedHealthcare.
Since July 1, Carr has lobbied the School District to do something about support staffers' premiums, which started to triple for some members in July, Carr said.
Last summer, when the School District was looking to consolidate its health care plans, the insurance plans for the district’s 11,000 support staff employees was changed to include the same benefits — such as domestic partnership — offered under the Teachers Health Trust, Carr said.
The increased benefits would have forced the support staffers' premiums to skyrocket in September 2011, but that was staved off when the support staff union conceded in December to use its reserves to offset the premium increases.
That money ran out July 1, and Carr has been fielding phone calls from startled union members ever since, he said.
Premiums went from $69 to $242 per paycheck for a married couple, Carr said. Families with up to five children were shocked to find their premiums go from $109 to $422 per paycheck, he said.
“$822 a month is a mortgage payment,” Carr said. “You’re putting such an impossible burden on our support staff. It’s absurd.”
District spokeswoman Amanda Fulkerson said the support staff union knew the increase would happen when it ratified its contract in December.
However, Carr argues that the health care increases weren’t negotiated with the union. It was unilaterally decided when the School District was battling with the teachers union about the fate of the Teachers Health Trust, Carr said.
The support staff was the collateral damage from the labor battle between the district and its teachers union, Carr said.
Now, the support staff union is in the process of taking the School District to arbitration too, Carr said.