Tuesday, September 28, 2004
Ky. teachers cry for relief on health insurance
Protests draw crowds and legislators' attention
By William Croyle, Mike Rutledge and Brenna R. Kelly
Enquirer staff writers
Northern Kentucky teachers did not sit quietly with their hands folded Monday. They marched, waved signs and raised their voices in one clear message: They won't stand for Gov. Ernie Fletcher's health-care plan.
"We are just trying to draw attention," Newport teacher Susan Padgett said as she marched down Monmouth Street in Newport, "and we hope Fletcher gets the message."
Thousands of school employees across the state protested the governor's health plan with rallies and marches in what could be the largest outcry ever by Kentucky state employees over health care.
Workers say the plan will raise deductibles, premiums, drug costs and other out-of-pocket expenses.
Wearing T-shirts that said "No teacher left behind," more than 2,000 employees from at least nine area school districts filled Holmes High School's football stadium in Covington.
Many waved signs such as, "Kentucky health care costs are making me sick," and "Hey, Ohio, are you hiring?"
Teacher Angela Brehm said the increase could hurt more than just teachers' pocketbooks.
"I'm afraid Kentucky is going to send its teachers fleeing to other states," said Brehm, a teacher at Turkey Foot Middle School in Kenton County.
Beechwood Elementary teacher Stephanie Schultz, protesting outside the school, said she has considered taking a job in Ohio.
"I can go across the river and make $12,000 more and pay $80 a month for health care," said Schultz, who teaches social studies at the Fort Mitchell school. "But I love this school and don't want to leave here."
In addition to school employees, state lawmakers attended Monday's protests to listen and promised they would work to improve the situation. Fletcher has called a special session of the General Assembly for Oct. 5 to deal with the health-care issue.
State Rep. Jim Callahan, D-Wilder, told educators at Ben Flora Gym in Bellevue that House and Senate leaders planned talks this afternoon in Frankfort.
VOICES ON THE ISSUE
"I live in Ohio, and ask myself sometimes, as I'm driving over the river, why am I not doing this in Ohio. But I'm hooked on these kids. We are here because we want to be." Karen Lyon, principal at Thomas Edison in Covington. Under the new plan,her health insurance would increase $100 a month.
"It's a small step, but it's what we can contribute right now. We hope this has an impact with so many involved. If not, I think you'll see a lot of teachers exiting." Lori Gohs, a 5th and 6th grade language arts teacher, who was protesting at Beechwood schools. She now pays $566 a month, which will go to $640.
"I am no longer on the coverage because I cannot afford it. I think the people in the city of Newport are going to realize we need to vote for people who are going to help us." Diane Shay, a preschool teacher's assistant at Fourth Street Elementary in Newport.
"This time, Frankfort needs to get it right." Covington Superintendent Jack Moreland, shouting duringthe Holmes rally.
"I can't afford the out-of-pocket expenses they're asking us to pay, but at the same time, I have to work." Mindy Hawkins, special education teacher at Conner Middle School, in Boone County. She has three children. She pays $380 a month for the family plan; that will go up to about $500.
"I'm hearing what my bosses are saying, and I told them I will do the best that I could to balance the various challenges that we have here. I mean, we've got limited resources. We want to do the best that we can by these folks, and we recognize that they are underpaid and they do a tremendous job." State Sen. Katie Stine, R-Fort Thomas, who attended at least three events.
"Now is the time that we start to work together, and we start to do what's right for the commonwealth," Callahan said.
Fletcher's plan cuts insurance benefits and raises premiums by about 7 percent overall. But Fletcher said he had to make those cuts to avoid a bigger premium increase of 25 percent.
At least 21 school districts across the state closed for Monday's protests led by the Kentucky Education Association.
In Northern Kentucky, Boone County, Kenton County, Covington and Erlanger-Elsmere schools all closed for the protests.
Before, during, after school
At schools that stayed open, demonstrations occurred before and after school hours.
Before sunrise, teachers gathered at Beechwood schools in Fort Mitchell. As parents arrived, they honked car horns as teachers passed out pamphlets.
After the final bell, about 150 Newport school employees and students marched down Monmouth Street to Fourth Street Elementary chanting, "Two, four, six, eight - lower our insurance rates."
"It sends a message that we've had enough," said Connie Bichlmeir, who works in the family resource center at the school and will see her insurance rise to more than $500 a month under the new plan. "We are tired of sacrificing and getting nothing in return."
Bus drivers, too
After school in Bellevue, more than 150 people, some with black cloth armbands, gathered to discuss the situation.
A few held signs with handwritten messages such as "Flip Flop Fletcher," and "Low Paid Bus Drivers, High Priced Health Care = NO BUS DRIVERS."
"Right now, I'm paying close to $700 a month for health care," said Bellevue driver Gary Pabst, a 65-year-old retiree of Cincinnati Gas & Electric. He said he works as a driver to help pay for his health insurance, which he gets through CG&E.
"More or less I'm working here to cover my health care," he said. "It's kind of gotten out of hand."
Though teachers have been the most vocal opponents of the plan, those affected include all school-district employees, state highway workers, state police and retired state workers.
The state health plan covers 229,000 workers, retirees and dependents. There are about 35,000 retirees in the system. Under the plan, employees will see increases in their monthly premiums and the percentage of medical costs they pay out of pocket.
Fletcher has indicated that the legislature, which failed to pass a state budget this year due to partisan bickering, will need to find more money to help employees with insurance costs.
Kentucky Education Association officials voted earlier this month to go on strike Oct. 27 if, among other things, the current plan is not restored.
Monday's protests were planned in conjunction with the start of the state's health insurance open-enrollment period. However, Fletcher last week suspended open enrollment after he announced the special session.
State Sen. Katie Stine, R-Fort Thomas, attended rallies in Covington, Fort Thomas and Bellevue.
She had committed to attending the Bellevue event at 3:30 p.m., then learned that protesters in Fort Thomas planned to walk petitions to her home during a 3:45 gathering.
"I went up to where they were gathering at Highlands (High School), and I talked with them beforehand, and then I hurried down here," Stine said before she left the Bellevue event. "I didn't want them to get there and then feel like, 'Gee, she didn't care, or she's hiding, or something.' "
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