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Most districts in state cover health care costs

| Sunday, Oct. 27, 2002

Getting free health care is relatively common among teachers in Pennsylvania, but much rarer among other types of workers.

Almost 400 of the state's 501 school districts offer teachers free health care, said Dave Davare, director of research services at the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

The others require teachers to pay a co-payment or do some other type of cost sharing, he said.

"That is probably one of the most difficult issues to negotiate," Davare said. "When health care costs were cheap, school boards had no objections to providing full paid coverage. Now that the union members have that benefit, even though the costs are skyrocketing for districts, the union is not willing to give up that benefit."

Even when teachers do have to contribute, the amount they must kick in often is minimal.

For example, Fox Chapel Area requires teachers to pay a flat $20 per month co-pay to the district per policy, Davare said.

In the New Kensington-Arnold School District in the Alle Kiski Valley, teachers contribute $1 per month toward their health insurance premium, according to district officials.

Nationwide, the issue of free health care will become "divisive" for teachers and taxpayers in the next two years, according to the CEO of a national workplace analysis firm.

That's because health care costs increased about 15 percent this year and are scheduled to do the same next year, said John Challenger, chief executive officer of the Chicago-based firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas.

"Increasingly, smaller companies have been abandoning their health insurance programs and passing back responsibility for premiums and co-pays back to the workers," Challenger said.

Across the country, the average nonunion worker paid $185 a month for family coverage in 2000, the most recent year figures were available from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The average union worker paid almost $60 less. Their cost was $129 a month for family coverage in 1999, the most recent year union figures were available from the bureau.

The majority of Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield's 3 million western Pennsylvania members pay something toward their health insurance, said Highmark spokeswoman Denise Grabner.

"It's a rarity to have 100 percent coverage," said Grabner. She said she couldn't find out how many Highmark subscribers get free health benefits from their employers.

No Highmark employees get free coverage, she said.

"School districts are one group where it's more likely they'll get 100 percent (free) coverage," Grabner said. "Others are unionized steelworkers. But among these groups, we have steady decreases in the past couple years towards more employee contributions."

Nationally, health insurance premiums are skyrocketing because of an aging population and because of the higher cost of new technologies and rising prescription drug costs, Grabner said.

Companies that use Highmark saw an average of a 20 percent premium increase from last year, Grabner said. Some companies saw less of an increase than that, she said.

Jonathan Szish is a staff writer for the Valley News Dispatch in Tarentum.

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