While officials at the local, state and federal levels continue to debate the state of the health care system — and just what should or should not be done about it — the fact remains that the rising cost of health care is one of the biggest issues we all face.
Whether you’re a member of the public seeking insurance coverage and health care access for yourself and your family, a private- or public-sector employer attempting to rein in rising expenses while also providing benefits for employees, or part of a government agency or elected body looking for solutions, health care impacts every significant financial situation you make.
In recent months, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has started a discussion about how it provides health care coverage for school district employees. The district is the largest employer on the Kenai Peninsula, and benefits — including health care coverage — are a large part of the district’s budget. What’s more, big increases in the district’s contributions to the state’s retirement systems have been driven largely by the increase in health care costs over the past several years. In fact, proposals to address the unfunded liability in the pension systems have been debated in Juneau over the past week. And health care benefits were one of the biggest sticking points in the district’s most recent contract negotiations.
Under the current collective bargaining agreements, any staff employed at least half-time with the district is eligible for benefits — but also required to participate in the district’s self-funded health plan. That has led to two different situations for employees. In one, a district employee may have access to health coverage elsewhere, but is still required to contribute to the district’s plan.
The other is what the district refers to as “double covered” employees. An example of this is when spouses both work for the district and both contribute to the district’s plan independently. By contrast, if just one spouse works for the district, the other may be added to the plan without paying a second employee contribution.
That might not have been a big deal a decade or two ago, but health care costs are taking bigger and bigger portions of employees’ paychecks and employers’ budgets.
District administration, employee representatives and the school board have started the discussion on changes to the district’s health care coverage with an eye toward managing costs — for employees, who are looking to keep as much money in their paycheck as they can while equitably contributing to the program, and the district, which must continue to manage expenses, even as the number of people covered and the number of people contributing would change.
It’s a discussion that doesn’t have an easy solution. Because it’s part of a negotiated agreement, significant change will require give and take on the part of the unions and the district administration.
But it’s a discussion worth pursuing, not just for the school district, but for everyone who is trying to get a handle on health care costs. In the new era of mandated health care coverage, the health care market is going to continue to evolve, and the way in which coverage is offered to health care consumers will need to evolve with it.