As health plan costs hit $1,000 a month, teachers take side jobs

Stephanie C. Quinn works year-round at New Braunfels ISD as a curriculum specialist, but after hours she consults for smaller districts as far away as the Panhandle and Gulf Coast. Her husband, an assistant principal, has started bar tending at music festivals in Austin.

The couple needs the extra money to cover their soaring health insurance costs. Premiums for family coverage under the state-sponsored plan for Texas educators start at over $1,000 a month — roughly twice as much as a decade ago. To avoid that cost, Quinn and her husband split the family onto two insurance plans, but still face big bills.

“It’s over $1,000 a month out of my pocket every month just for medical stuff, sometimes up to $1,500,” said Quinn, who has four children, ages 6 to 17. “We’re trying to offset that.”

Teacher salaries are higher than they have ever been, however the medical insurance is currently the highest. Many say the higher wage does not offset the insurance cost.

Texas educators, like Quinn, and local school districts are increasingly shouldering the burden of skyrocketing health care costs as the state has kept its own contribution flat over the past 16 years.

So as the Legislature pledges to boost pay for teachers — wages in Texas lag the national average by $7,000 a year — many educators say that without a serious fix for health insurance, rising health care costs would quickly eat up any pay bump.

Premiums for TRS ActiveCare — insurance offered at roughly 90 percent of Texas school districts — have steadily risen since the plan started in 2002. In that time the state hasn’t increased its $75 monthly contribution to employee premiums. Districts are required to chip in $150 a month, but many are paying more to try and keep coverage affordable.T

“The state hasn’t contributed more, but somebody has to pay for it,” said Sheleah Reed, a spokeswoman for Aldine ISD, a district north of Houston where more than 85 percent of students qualify for free-or-reduced lunch. “Of course, whatever you are spending in additional funds, you’re not spending it in the classroom.”

Teachers and school staff pick up the remaining premium cost — a share that has more than doubled since 2002, according to the Teacher Retirement System which oversees TRS ActiveCare. The rising costs are cutting into teacher take-home pay and sometimes outpace salary increases, said Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators. Texas teachers make on average $52,575 a year, according to data from the National Education Association .

“If your health care costs are so out-of-control it’s causing your salary to go down year-over-year, that’s an issue,” Exter said.

To avoid big bills, educators say they’ve declined critical — but costly — medical care, including CT scans and prescription medicine. Some have taken on second jobs. Others have removed children and spouses from their insurance plans, in favor of covering only themselves with high-deductible plans.

State employees pay much lower premiums

Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, filed a bill this session to raise the state contribution so educators wouldn’t have to pay a premium for employee-only coverage. The total cost to the state has yet to be calculated, he said.

“We need to come up with some sustainable way to make sure we have parity across the nation on teacher salary, but part of the benefit package is the teacher active insurance plan,” he said.

The state, meanwhile, contributes more than $480 a month to full-time state employees’ insurance premiums, meaning they pay $0 for the individual-only plan. The premium for family coverage under the most popular plan starts at $538 a month, with the state contributing over $1,200, according to the Employees Retirement System of Texas which administers health insurance for the roughly 141,000 active state workers, including lawmakers.

So far, a change in teacher health insurance benefits hasn’t been a big part of the school finance conversation at the Legislature. But House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, said it’s something lawmakers will look at with the rising cost of health care.

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Teachers’ premiums vary depending on what their school district contributes, and who they choose to enroll in the plan.

Almost 60 percent of the 438,000 district employees covered by TRS Active Care last year opted for the cheaper high-deductible plan, according to TRS data.

Susan Seaton, president of the San Marcos Educators Association, is one of them. San Marcos CISD contributes almost $300 a month so employees don’t pay a premium. But Seaton’s deductible is $2,750 with an out-of-pocket maximum of $6,650. She is on track to hit both since the co-pay for her arthritis injections is $1,100. Getting the medicine once every two weeks, like her doctor recommended, would eat up almost her entire monthly paycheck, she said. So Seaton spaces the doses out over six weeks instead.

“That’s just for one medication,” said Seaton, an elementary school teacher. “It’s very hard on teachers.”

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Some of the largest school districts in the state, including San Antonio ISD and North East ISD, fund their own insurance plans, which gives them more flexibility to negotiate rates. Still, districts without TRS Active Care face rising coststoo. North East ISD said it has raised its contribution to employee premiums by $100 within the past four years. The San Antonio district contributes at least $360 a month toward employee premiums — not including the state portion — but teachers still struggle.

David Garza, an early education teacher with the district, hit his head in a bike accident late last year, but declined a CT scan that would have cost him $800 in addition to a co-pay, he said. Garza couldn’t afford the expense so close to the holidays, he said.

“I ended up going for a cheaper option,” he said. “In lieu of CT scan, I got X-rays done.” Doctors didn’t find any broken bones, but he could not be sure without the scan, he said.

Some districts struggle to raise contributions, and as a result, risk losing qualified teachers. Lupita Villarreal left her job teaching elementary school at Harlandale ISD to take a lower-paying librarian position in a neighboring district last year. Her salary is less, but Villarreal ends up pocketing more money each month since her health insurance costs are lower. It’s the case even as Harlandale increased its contributions to employee health care costs by $25 a month in 2018.

“Here’s the thing that bothers me: If other districts are able to provide for their teachers, that means that quality teachers are not going to be in every district,” she said. “That’s so unfair to certain districts like Harlandale because those kids are just as deserving of good quality teachers.”

Quinn, whose district contributes more than what’s required toward employee premiums, recently filmed a 10-minute Facebook video explaining how she and her husband split plans to save around $300 a month. It racked up over 45,000 views, just a few thousand shy of Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest Facebook video calling for property tax and school finance reform.

“We pay all this money every month,” Quinn said. “In all honesty, I would rather them tackle health care than give us a $5,000 raise.”

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