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Calvert school officials discuss healthcare situation


Dawn C. Balinski

Prince Frederick, MD –  A significant increase in costs that could go even higher in the years to come has administrators of Calvert County Public Schools (CCPS) prepared to take action. The strategy, however, will likely have to be crafted without the benefit of input from the largest group of benefactors of the CCPS healthcare plan—the employees.

On Thursday, Oct. 9 Assistant Superintendent of Administration Anthony Navarro, Director of Finance Edith Hutchins and Director of Procurement and Resource Management Kevin Michael presented an overview of the CCPS Employee Healthcare Benefits during a Calvert County Board of Education (BOE) work session.

After Navarro listed the members of the committee currently studying the healthcare benefit issue, BOE Member Tracy McGuire inquired as to why members of the Calvert Education Association (CEA, the organization representing teachers) and Calvert Association of Educational Support Staff (CAESS) didn’t have members on the committee. Navarro admitted the two employee organizations had indicated “they don’t want to join now.”

Board President Dr. Eugene Karol noted healthcare costs are a bone of contention during CCPS’ ongoing contract negotiations with the employee unions. “They ought to be at the table,” Karol declared.

After the work session, CEA President Debbie Russ confirmed that the employee unions had decided not to participate on the committee studying healthcare until current contract negotiations reach a conclusion. The bargaining sessions between the CEA and CCPS negotiating teams are set to resume Tuesday, Oct. 14. Russ told The Bay Net if the Oct. 14 session does not yield a settlement “I’m afraid things are going to get worse.”

The administrators studying the healthcare issue told the BOE their aim is to “provide sustainable, quality health benefits for CCPS employees; control the cost of healthcare benefits for CCPS employees and comply with all requirements of the Affordable Care Act.”

Hutchins explained employee premiums and school district money is placed in a pot to pay for the healthcare costs. The lion’s share of that money is from the taxpayers. While CCPS is self-insured, CareFirst BlueCross/Blue Shield is the healthcare benefits vendor. The more claims for significant illnesses made by the covered employees the more depleted the pot gets.

“We had a pretty good experience with our plan,” said Hutchins, who showed the school board a graph chronicling three years of a surplus exceeding $2 million. However, during the 2012-2013 school year the healthcare coffer was in arrears by $102,203 and last school year the figure skyrocketed to over $1 million. The Calvert County Commissioners gave the BOE an additional $1.9 million to cover the increased costs. The leaders of the school employee unions were quite vocal that the additional funding should have been used for salary increases.

Down the road, the situation could be further acerbated if the an excise levy on high cost health plans, known as the ACA Cadillac Tax, goes into effect in either 2017 or 2018.

Calvert’s public school employees currently have a healthcare benefits plan that covers medical, prescription, vision and dental. The medical component is provided through either a traditional plan (only those employees hired prior to July 1, 2001 are eligible for this), preferred provider organization or health maintenance organization.

“Calvert’s remains an attractive benefit package,” said Michael.

According to the information provided during the work session, CCPS’ healthcare plan member enrollment has increased nearly 21 percent since 2003. Today, the plan has over 2,400 members. That figure includes some family members of school employees.

“We really have to look at our plan,” said Hutchins, who noted the increasing membership, rising number of claims, pricey ACA mandates and declining state revenues are challenging administrators to maintain the system’s healthcare benefit offerings.

Severing ties with the current vendor could pose a risk since many other vendors don’t offer the traditional plan.

The BOE approved Superintendent of Schools Dr. Daniel Curry’s recommendation to “piggyback” on Carroll County Public Schools’ request for proposal (RFP) regarding insurance consulting services. “Bolton Partners was awarded this contract on May 28,” Michael stated in a memo to the BOE. “Carroll County Public Schools has no problem with our piggybacking on subject contract.” Calvert’s cost for the RFP is $48,000. The BOE voted 4-to-0 to approve the expenditure.

Noting that if the BOE does nothing about the healthcare benefits situation the costs to CCPS and its employees would continue to rise dramatically, Board Member Dawn C. Balinski indicated the expenditure was worth it. “There’s a lot more at stake than $48,000,” she declared.

The school board members appeared vexed that the employees’ unions were unwilling to discuss the looming crisis.

“They ought to be part of the decision,” said Karol.

McGuire concurred that the decisions on employees’ healthcare benefits needed to be made at the negotiation table.

Balinski warned that if benefits weren’t renegotiated to a more affordable level employees would be removing salary increases out of the realm of possibility in the future. At the end of the BOE’s regular meeting Balinski urged all CCPS employees to contact their union representatives to participate in the healthcare discussion. “We need them at the table,” she stated.

Contact Marty Madden at marty.madden@thebaynet.com

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