Last year a teacher in the Lower Rio Grande Valley needed medical care for her son after he broke his leg. She decided to take him across the border to Mexico for treatment. Why? Because she couldn’t afford to pay for the care, and her insurance deductible was so high that it did not provide any relief.
Cases like this one are behind the push for teachers’ health insurance in the current legislative session. Unlike state-agency employees, teachers do not get any state-paid health insurance. It’s provided by local school districts, but many are too small to get affordable rates, and in approximately forty districts, teachers are not offered any coverage at all. Sixty percent of all Texas school employees pay monthly premiums of $500 or more. And while the Legislature passed the largest teacher pay increase in history two years ago, some teachers hardly noticed any change in their paychecks because of higher health insurance premiums.
State leaders agree that the disparity between what is offered teachers in different districts is unfair. But teacher health insurance, like a lot of other problems in state government, has been neglected for so long that any effort to fix it will run into fiscal and political restraints. As Senate education committee chairman Teel Bivins (R-Amarillo), a supporter of helping underinsured teachers, puts it, “All the easy problems have been fixed.”
Here are some of the issues lawmakers must resolve before teachers get any assistance:
What will it cost? Estimates range from $1.6 billion to $3 billion a year, depending on how the state splits the cost with school districts. Full state funding would cost $3.3 billion, far more than the state can afford. Lawmakers must find a happy medium that entices school districts to join the plan, without busting the state’s budget. While some teacher advocates may argue for the state to pay a larger portion, budget writers are nervous about what would amount to an entitlement that is subject to ever-rising costs. Another