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Health benefits remain key issue

| Monday, March 26, 2001

Mt. Lebanon teachers seldom are in last place for anything, but union leaders say there's one exception: health care.

'We clearly stand alone,' teachers union president Mark McCloskey said. 'When we say we're 501st out of 501 school districts, no one disputes that.'

Health care, specifically health insurance co-payments, have become the largest stumbling block in contract negotiations.

At last week's school board meeting, school board president Ron Hoffman made that point clear. 'The future progress of bargaining depends on the Mt. Lebanon Education Association's readiness to negotiate this critical issue,' he said.

From the start of negotiations in January 2000, the union has requested that teacher health insurance co-payments be eliminated.

Under the last contract, which expired in June, the district has a cap on what it will spend on any health insurance plan. Negotiators for the district are proposing to keep a cap on what it will spend on health insurance for teachers.

Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield provides health insurance for the school district, and teachers have the choice of three plans: the Select Blue point of service plan, the Keystone HMO plan and an indemnity, or fee-for-service, plan.

For all three plans, the district contributes $144 for an individual and $414 for family coverage.

Most teachers have Select Blue, which means they contribute $52 per month for individual coverage and $139 for family coverage to meet the cost of the premiums.

'We don't see the rationale for it,' McCloskey said.

But Hoffman said it is a cost-cutting measure.

'While we are willing to negotiate the amounts devoted to the purchase of health insurance, we believe the basic cost-control features of this benefit should be preserved,' he said. 'To curb future cost escalations for both employees and taxpayers, we remain willing to discuss with the MLEA changes in plan design or carriers.'

District negotiator Matt Hoffman said the rationale is to provide the best coverage at the best cost.

'The district believes the union and its members ought to be stakeholders and have a direct interest to get the best benefits for the best price,' Matt Hoffman said.

'If you didn't have that current structure, the district would pay the cost of the Select Blue plan regardless of the benefits. There would be no incentive on the part of the union or its members to see we're getting a good deal,' he said.

The district first began the cost cap structure in the teacher's contract in 1995. At the time, the caps were set at the same dollar amount as the indemnity plan's premiums.

It was something the union was reluctant to agree to, McCloskey said.

'The indemnity plan was vastly higher than Select Blue, so we thought we'd make it through the five and a half years of the contract without Select Blue co-payments when we signed that contract. It was a gamble,' he said.

But the cost of Select Blue escalated, and by 1998, teachers were making co-payments.

Besides Mt. Lebanon, Fox Chapel, North Allegheny and the Pittsburgh Public Schools require teachers to make copayments.

North Hills approved a contract in which teachers are required to help pay for insurance, but that contract is now under dispute.

But McCloskey said Mt. Lebanon's situation is incomparable to other schools in the area.

Unlike Mt. Lebanon, North Allegheny's insurance is through Health America, and both North Allegheny and Fox Chapel cap the amount teachers have to pay to under $50 per month for family coverage.

'This element has to be changed from the sheer point of equity and justice,' McCloskey said. 'There's no rationale why the highest performing teachers have the worst health care in the state. It doesn't make sense.'

Across the state, approximately 31 percent of schools require teachers to contribute to the cost of health insurance in contracts for 2000-01, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association research department.

But outside the education field, employees more and more are contributing to their health insurance coverage. Figures from the U.S. Labor Department Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in medium to large private industries in 1997, nearly 70 percent of employees contributed to the cost of single coverage.

But because Mt. Lebanon school district gets better rates than most private industries, 'it's like comparing apples and oranges,' McCloskey said.

In the meantime, the district has presented the union with a formal contract proposal, which includes adjusted health insurance caps, and the union has responded with a counter proposal that kept their stance of no teacher copayments.

Both sides have said that each other's proposal has shown little interest in reaching an agreement, and no further meetings have been scheduled.

Maggi Newhouse can be reached at mnewhouse@tribweb.com or at (412) 306-4535 .

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