Bill to put teachers on state health insurance clears Senate | Health

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Legislation to put Idaho teachers and other educational workers on state health insurance headed to the governor on Thursday.

The Senate voted 32-3 to approve the plan that backers said will allow Idaho K-12 teachers and other school workers to take home more of their paychecks by reducing their costs for premiums and deductibles.

The bill would give school districts an opportunity to leave private health care carriers and join the state’s self-funded health insurance plan.

“The motivation for the effort is to make our Idaho schools more competitive in recruiting and retaining teachers and support staff,” said Republican Sen. Jim Woodward, the bill’s sponsor.

Lawmakers said health insurance costs are eating into Idaho teacher paychecks and causing many to consider leaving the profession. Backers also said passing the bill could reduce reliance on school levies some school districts use that can raise property taxes.

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“I think this will do more to increase teacher take-home pay than maybe some of the other efforts that we’ve done the last several years,” said Republican Sen. Steven Thayn. “We’ve increased teacher pay quite a few times over the last four or five years. However, much of that teacher pay has been sucked up in increasing health insurance costs.”

The bill is not a budget bill, and it doesn’t allocate any money. Instead, it creates a dedicated fund that would hold money needed for public schools to buy into the state’s medical and dental group insurance plan.

Legislation with financing is expected to follow. That involves a one-time appropriation of $75.5 million needed if all schools opt to enter into the state employment plan.

The other part involves an ongoing $105 million to help cover employee health insurance costs. That would increase the $8,400 schools get per employee to pay private health insurance costs to $12,500, the level the state pays for its employees for health insurance.

As part of the plan, about $20 million in state financing would be eliminated in leadership premiums for school teachers.

“Teaching is a very high-stress job,” said Democratic Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking. “I know that having better health coverage will be a benefit not only to the teacher but also to the students because if we can keep our teachers in the classroom and healthy, that’s a good thing.”

The bill cleared the House last week, and has the backing of Republican Gov. Brad Little.

“Thank you to the Idaho Senate for passing this GAME-CHANGING legislation for Idaho teachers — part of my Leading Idaho plan!” he tweeted shortly after the vote.

Little’s Leading Idaho plan, announced in January, is his plan to give back Idaho’s $1.9 billion budget surplus to Idaho residents in the form of tax cuts and investments. The plan also includes federal coronavirus relief money.

Money approved for the health insurance plan would have to first go through the Legislature’s budget-setting committee and then be approved by the House and Senate.

It’s possible some school districts could stick with their insurers, if they’re competitive, or move to the state plan.

Any money put into the fund, according to the legislation, can’t be spent before July 1 or after June 30, 2024, giving school districts a two-year window to make a decision.

Any money left in the dedicated fund by its expiration would go to the public education stabilization fund or, if that’s full, to the state’s general fund.

The National Education Association estimated that for the 2019-2020 school year, the average national classroom teacher salary was $65,000.

Idaho ranked 39th with an average salary of just under $53,000 and 35th in average starting salary at $38,000.

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