A special legislative session could be called to address rising school employee health insurance costs by the end of August, the chairman of a task force that is meeting about the issue said Tuesday.
Speaking to a joint conference of Arkansas administrators and school board members, Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, said he will present about 20 recommendations Wednesday to the State and Public School Life and Health Insurance Program Legislative Task Force. If the task force can agree on a package, a bill could be ready for review within a few days, and then support would have to be obtained by majorities in the House and Senate. A special session would have to be held by the end of August because school insurance operates on a calendar year.
“We’ll know tomorrow if the task force agrees on a path forward, and I don’t think there’s a lot of disagreement on most of the things that are necessary,” he said afterwards.
Matt DeCample, spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe, said it’s too early to speculate on whether a special session will be called.
The task force was created after the Legislature met in a special session in October to address soaring school insurance rates. Legislators poured $43 million in one-time money into the plan and added another $36 million annually from other sources as a quick fix. They also created the task force to find more permanent solutions to the continuing problem. The task force will meet at 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Hendren said a primary reason for the rising costs is inappropriate pricing. Premiums for the lowest price bronze plan, which covers 19,000 employees, are only $11 a month for beneficiaries who are single. The price increased only $1 a month from the previous year because the Legislature had mandated increases of no more than 10 percent. Because the bronze plan is priced so cheaply, the 20,000 members on the zero-deductible gold plan are paying escalating prices, he said.
Hendren, who spoke alongside the task force’s vice chair, Rep. Harold Copenhaver, D-Jonesboro, expressed confidence that six recommendations have broad support. Those are:
• Ending coverage for the 4,000 part-time school employees currently being covered. Hendren said those employees are increasing costs for full-time employees. Moreover, part-time employees are being done a disservice because making them eligible for the school plans makes them ineligible for cheaper insurance on the insurance exchange created by the Affordable Care Act.
• Verifying more aggressively that dependents are actually eligible for coverage.
• A spousal exclusion policy that would not provide insurance to employees who can obtain it elsewhere.
• Ending the bariatric surgery benefit (gastric bypass, etc.) that last year cost $8 million.
• Changing the gold plan, which has a zero dollar deductible and is so generous that it will be subject to a tax under the Affordable Care Act.
• Raising the bronze plan premium to $60-$85 a month and then creating a health savings account for those employees.
Hendren said he did not sense support for increasing state funding for school employee health insurance, as was done in the previous special session. Doing nothing, however, is not an option.
“If we don’t do anything, you are looking at another 35 percent increase to keep the thing solvent,” he said.