Sunday, September 5, 2004

Teachers fear health proposal

Cost could spur exodus, some say

By Karen Gutierrez
Enquirer staff writer

Possible higher costs in health benefits for Northern Kentucky teachers may force some to jump ship for Ohio or Indiana, educators say.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher is working on a plan that would require all state employees to pay more out of their pockets for medical care. At the same time, monthly premiums are expected to increase in January, with employees paying on a sliding scale proportional to their salaries.

Fletcher encouraged teachers on Friday to reserve judgment on the changes until he unveils his plan Tuesday. Fletcher said he would be working over the weekend to hold down costs for teachers by taking into account last month's higher state tax revenues, which were up 10 percent over the year before.

Nevertheless, Northern Kentucky educators remain pessimistic.

"I definitely think we're going to lose teachers," said Jeannine Rohrkasse, a math teacher at Walton-Verona High School in Boone County.

She loves the school - both she and her parents are alumni - and she has no plans to leave.

Still, "I could drive 10 minutes north (to Ohio) and have much better pay, better health insurance. If I were a young teacher, and I knew what I know, no way would I teach in Kentucky. No way," Rohrkasse said.

Northern Kentucky superintendents are concerned. At their regular meeting last week, they fretted over losing good employees because of the insurance cuts, said Jack Moreland, superintendent of the Covington Independent School District.

The Kentucky Education Association is calling for a statewide demonstration day for teachers to protest. Next week, members of the Jefferson County Teacher's Association will decide whether to seek a vote on a statewide strike.

Kentucky's state health-insurance plan covers 170,000 state employees and retirees, which includes 98,000 people working for school districts. Fletcher has said the state's costs for those employees will rise by 39 percent next year - an "unsustainable" amount that is forcing the changes.

Under his proposal, one scenario has employees paying about $850 more next year in out-of-pocket expenses, according to an analysis by the Legislative Research Commission.

District employees who opt out of state insurance also would be affected. Instead of receiving $234 a month from the state toward their expenses, they would get $100.

Rohrkasse is one teacher who opted out, because the state's plan was already so expensive, she said.

Kentucky pays $286.16 a month toward teacher insurance, which is enough to cover the entire cost for a single person with minimal coverage. Families pay much more - as much as $566.84 a month in the Walton-Verona School District, where Rohrkasse works.

Instead of paying that much last year, she found private insurance. Total cost for herself, husband and their 5-year-old daughter: $271 a month.

Teachers are well aware of better deals in Ohio, Rohrkasse said.

The Mariemont School District is one of many that offers more. It pays 90 percent of monthly health-insurance premiums for school employees. Single teachers pay about $30 a month and those with families pay $75.

At the end of this month, Kentucky teachers will begin signing up for next year's coverage.

"They're really scared," said Bev Johnson, a teacher at Twenhofel Middle School in Independence. "They're saying, 'What if I can't afford my medicine?' "


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