Deal on teacher health care remains elusive

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers returned to the State House Wednesday after adjourning for a long weekend Friday but were still unable to find common ground with Gov. Phil Scott on the main issue holding up the end of the legislative session.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate met with the Republican governor Wednesday, along with representatives of the Vermont School Boards Association and the Vermont National Education Association, but no accord was reached on how to achieve up to $26 million in projected savings from changes in the health insurance plans offered to teachers that will take effect in January.

Gov. Phil Scott speaks to reporters Wednesday. (VPB/Neal Goswami)

The potential savings comes from changes to the health insurance plans offered to teachers by the Vermont Education Health Initiative. The federal Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010, includes a tax on high-end insurance plans. To avoid the tax, VEHI is offering a new slate of plans to Vermont teachers that have lower premium costs but higher out-of-pocket expenses.

Scott is proposing to use nearly $50 million of the $75 million savings from lower premiums to offset the higher out-of-pocket expenses, leaving about $26 million left in savings.

The governor and Democratic leaders in the Legislature are at odds over how best to achieve the savings. Scott maintains that the only way to ensure the savings is by requiring all teachers to negotiate directly with his administration for one statewide health care contract, rather than with school boards at the local level.

Democratic leaders in the Legislature, as well as the Vermont NEA, the union that represents most teachers in the state, insist Scott’s plan will infringe on teachers’ collective bargaining rights.

All agree that some savings are possible. But Scott said it is incumbent upon the Legislature to propose new ideas if they do not like his plan.

“There have been no formal proposals that have been coming forth at this point,” the governor told reporters Wednesday afternoon. “My plan still is out there. I believe that that’s the best approach in trying to accomplish these savings and bringing these savings back to taxpayers.”

He said Wednesday’s meeting with all of the stakeholders was helpful.

“I wouldn’t say there was any breakthroughs but, certainly, ongoing talks are positive. We talked about areas of agreement, so I would view that as a positive step in the right direction,” Scott said. “I just thought it was important to at least get all in the same room to maybe air differences, ideas and so forth. We didn’t come to any conclusions.”

Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said a deal remained elusive after emerging from the meeting with Scott.

Sen. Jane Kitchel

“I wouldn’t say that we’re on the edge of an agreement. I think we’re just trying to put together a structure to have some coming together about options and what might be some common ground that makes sense short-term and longer-term,” Kitchel said.

Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, the chairman of the House Education Committee, said some new ideas were raised in the meeting with the governor, but declined to provide details.

“These are productive conversations and we’re working hard to find a way forward to deal with teachers’ health care and close the books on this session and go home,” he said.

Jeff Fannon, the executive director of Vermont NEA, said the meeting allowed for a “good, frank discussion.”

“We understood even more where people stood — what they could live with, what they’re concerned about. I think it was, perhaps, the first of other conversations and maybe it sparked an idea with somebody,” he said.

Fannon said he left the meeting believing an agreement is possible that will not require changing the way teachers negotiate for their health care benefits.

The state budget includes funds for lawmakers to remain in session through this week. If they are unable to find common ground with the governor the session could require lawmakers to continue working beyond the 18 legislative weeks included in the state budget. Scott said he would support lawmakers returning next week if it helps save money on the cost of teachers’ health insurance.

“It costs us $250,000 a week to stay here. It’s still a good investment to stay a little bit longer,” he said.

Legislative leaders planned to continue working Wednesday night on a path forward that will allow the Legislature to adjourn this week.

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