Skyrocketing healthcare premiums draw outcry from NPS employees
For many, the first week of school means butterflies in the stomach, sharp new pencils, high expectations and uncontainable excitement. But for Nome Public Schools employees, that sense of excitement is dampened by the recent news of heightened healthcare premiums and a lack of transparency between administration and staff.
On Tuesday, August 14 at the first regular school board meeting of the school year, teachers, staff and community members dominated the audience and filled up the public comment sign-up sheet to address the board with their concerns.
While the shock of increased premiums was clear on the faces of all, anger at a lack of communication and disappointment in the choices of the administration and school board were also apparent. Last week, The Nome Nugget reported on the district’s healthcare issues, highlighting the details of the premium increase and how things got to this point.
NPS employees are seeing a 108 percent increase to their healthcare costs, or a premium of more than $ 800 for most plan members. Earlier this month, teachers were given details of the increase in premiums, giving them barely a month to adjust their budgets for the upcoming pay cut.
Why have premiums skyrocketed? In 2017, NPS switched from a traditional group insurance plan, to a self-funded insurance plan. In the self-funded model, the school is able to take advantage of lower-cost premiums, based on the amount of claims they have. When the district first signed up, costs did go down. But, self-funded plans are like a double-edged sword. One side is shiny and inexpensive, and the other side is bloody and expensive. That bloody side, the district originally thought, would be a worst-case scenario and not likely to happen.
Apparently, they were wrong. That “worst case” is happening now, and while the district’s budget is bleeding to make up for the difference in cost, teachers and staff members are asking their administration why they did not ask more questions, consider all the scenarios or take a closer look at their risk factors.
“Was there discussion about the inherent risk of having a small pool that is largely older individuals or families, and why are we being told that this was expected as the ‘worst case scenario,’ and in the same breath being told that we didn’t know about this until June?” asked social studies teacher Aaron Blankenship during the public comment period last Tuesday.
Blankenship also read a statement from teacher Stephanie Bowen, who could not make the meeting. “I am currently not at this board meeting as I began my second job yesterday and am working tonight out of necessity. Prior to the hike in our insurance, I already struggled to make ends meet with my budget. I am having trouble finding motivation for the school year. How can I effectively educate these kids if I’m literally too poor to survive living here in Nome?” asked Bowen.
Another teacher, Hana Robb, who was also not present at the meeting because of secondary employment, had her statement read by teacher Rebekah Albertson, “My premiums went up about 108 percent. With an insurance premium of $809 and the cost of living here compared to our pay scale, I am greatly impacted financially. Not only did our premiums go up, but the deductibles have also doubled,” said Robb, who also expressed her diminished excitement about the start of the school year.
Teriscovkya Smith, English teacher, shared her disappointment in the district’s choices and asked for answers. Smith said that with these new premiums, she would now be “in the red” every month, because she made the decision to not work over the summer and instead spent time caring for herself and her family.
“Our salaries and benefits are not competitive with other districts, and people that choose to be here have some other draw to this region and our city, and this makes us special. Our autonomy was one of our greatest assets, but now it seems to have undermined the very traits I previously admired,” said Smith.
While the school board, by policy, cannot directly address public comments in a meeting, board members discussed healthcare premiums in the comments and questions period after the superintendent’s report.
New Superintendent Bill Schildbach explained to the board how the large number of claims made in the nine months after NPS switched to a self-insured, or self-funded, plan, resulted in the large increase in premiums. The district is hoping that some of those large claims will settle at a lower rate, which could drop the premiums a bit this year, but that will not be known until October. According to Schildbach, as soon as the insurance year is over, the district will begin shopping around for new insurers this fall.
Board members were also given an opportunity to ask questions of Diana Stewart, health insurance representative for One Digital Health & Benefits, who came to town to meet with NPS employees. Board member Jennifer Reader wanted to know if there was an option to leave the current health insurance plan this school year.
“Currently right now you are locked in,” answered Stewart. “If in fact, as these claims resolve themselves and we get better numbers to go out to market, you could actually terminate your current plan and change mid-year. Generally not advisable, but it is a possibility,” continued Stewart, who explained that claims need to come in lower than what they are now. In a self-funded plan, Stewart explained that the district sets their own rates, based on what their costs are. So, there is the potential for rates to come down yet this year, although it would be unlikely.
“From what I’ve heard, even from some of your speakers today, there are additional things that could become very large claims very quickly. There are always situations in a health plan where unexpected things happen. There’s just no way to predict who’s gonna have a car accident, who’s gonna slip and fall, who’s going to contract any disease. So, we hope for the best, and plan for the worst,” added Stewart.
In other news, board president Dr. Barb Amarok gave a presentation on Culture Camp to the board and audience members. Eleven new teachers from NPS and Bering Strait School District participated in a week-long camp experience where they completed Alaska Studies course requirements, as well as learned culturally relevant skills such as seining for salmon, drying fish, and canning fish. Camp participants also discussed cultural differences and ways to implement what they learned into their class curriculum.
The board also discussed a survey about Cultural Safety and how the district can turn those survey results into action across the district.
In action items, the board approved board policies 6146 Reciprocity Graduation Requirements, 6178.1 Work Placed Learning, and 6180 Dual Credit Guidelines, all in their final readings. The board also approved a Stop Loss Premium for FY19, to adjust the budget for the higher cost of healthcare premiums.
The board will reconvene for a work session on August 28 at 5:30 p.m. in the Nome Elementary School Library. The next regular meeting is scheduled for September 11.