Editorial: Health plan worth exploring

A statewide health insurance plan for K-12 school employees is an idea worth exploring.

This year’s state budget includes a proviso that a task force be formed to “study, review and develop a plan for … implementation and administration of a unified school district employee health care benefits program.” The idea was first proposed in a 2016 efficiency study by the consulting firm Alvarez and Marsal. The task force was recently formed and is expected to issue a report in January, ahead of the 2018 legislative session.

The consultants estimated a single, state-run, high-deductible plan could save upward of $80 million a year. That’s significant considering the Kansas Supreme Court recently ruled that the state’s school funding formula is inadequate and gave legislators until June 30, 2018, to come up with a revised plan that provides schools with more funding per student.

Presently, Kansas law requires health insurance plans to be negotiated between school districts and teachers.

Gov. Sam Brownback, who initiated the consultants’ review in 2015 as a way to identify efficiencies in state government, supports the single health-care plan idea. And a Legislative Post Audit report released in February said putting all K-12 employees into a single plan likely would save a considerable amount of money. But the audit also noted that only about 60 percent of the savings would be the result of increased efficiency.

“Having districts join a consolidated plan creates significant opportunities for savings through increased plan efficiency which would likely have little effect on employees,” the audit report said. “However, consolidation may also result in changes to coverage levels or employee contribution rates. These changes can shift healthcare costs from the district onto its employees or vice versa.”

Teacher groups have expressed reservation about the statewide health plan.

“A high-deductible plan might mean lower premiums paid, but would almost certainly also mean reduced benefits,” said David Reber, lead negotiator for the Lawrence Education Association. “Both of those would mean an overall reduction in the amount and quality of compensation for Kansas’ K-12 teachers. The last thing Kansas teachers need is reduced compensation.”

But given the trends in health insurance coverage, changes in health benefits are likely for educators, whether the plan is negotiated at the district or state level. And it seems likely that costs and benefits in a negotiated statewide insurance plan could be better than what many small districts can negotiate independently.

There is much work that would need to be done to determine if a statewide health insurance plan for teachers is viable. But given the state of school funding in Kansas, it makes considerable sense to at least explore the idea.