Student Well-Being

K-12, Colleges Swept Up in Health-Care Debate

By Sean Cavanagh & Alyssa Morones — November 21, 2013 4 min read

Public education is being swept up in the ideological battles over the 2010 federal health-care law, including on Capitol Hill, with Republicans predicting the far-reaching measure will hurt school workers and budgets, and Democrats describing those fears as overblown.

Those divides were on display at a recent congressional hearing, which was touted as an event to gauge the impact of the law on schools and colleges. It focused largely on requirements those institutions could face in providing health coverage to support staff and hourly employees.

Republicans at the Nov. 14 hearing of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, including Chairman John Kline, predicted that school systems would be forced to cut programs to make up costs associated with the law, and warned that some districts would cut employees’ hours to skirt the measure’s provisions.

The Minnesota Republican said the law would have “unintended consequences,” including reductions in the quality of insurance for some employees.

“You’re looking at dollars and cents, and you’re going to have to make choices,” Mr. Kline told witnesses from K-12 and college systems at the hearing.

Even so, the chairman acknowledged that the discussion of the health-care law is a “tale of two cities,” in this case playing out in a polarized Washington, where the two parties have starkly different views of the benefits of the 3-year-old measure.

To his point, Democrats at the hearing said the health-care law would end up helping hourly and adjunct employees who for years have been asked to work substantial hours with no health insurance—and who have little prospect of securing coverage without the law.

Among other provisions, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act mandates that public and private employers with at least 50 workers provide health insurance to full-time workers—defined as employees working an average of 30 or more hours a week—or face fines. That requirement would apply to many school districts.

Hourly Worker Issue

Some school systems that rely heavily on hourly workers to fill positions such as instructional aides, support staff, and other roles say the provision will force them to reduce those employees’ work weeks to get below the 30-hour threshold. Others say it could lead districts to offer their employees watered-down health plans.

Those worries were voiced at the hearing by Mark D. Benigni, the superintendent of the Meriden school system in Connecticut. While Mr. Benigni said the vast majority of his districts’ employees have health insurance, he also predicted that the costs of covering those who do not will be steep.

The law could cost the 9,100-student district $4.6 million over time—the approximate cost of 58 teaching positions, Mr. Benigni estimated. Those costs, he said, stem from the law’s requirement that districts expand the benefits and eligibility of coverage to current employees, a step that includes covering children up until the age of 26, and from the law’s call to insure employees working at least 30 hours a week, among other provisions.

“We will need to intervene with some staff that have elected higher wages for nonbenefit-eligible positions,” Mr. Benigni told lawmakers. “We will need to decide if we eliminate these positions altogether, reduce their hours, or decrease their wages in order to offer insurance.”

Mr. Benigni was joined at the hearing by three witnesses whose focus was primarily the postsecondary landscape. Testifying were: Gregory Needles, a lawyer who advises colleges on their health plans; Maria Maisto, the president of the New Faculty Majority, an organization that seeks to improve the working conditions of faculty, particularly adjuncts; and Thomas Jandris, the dean of the college of graduate and innovative programs at Concordia University, Chicago.

Rep. Susan Brooks, an Indiana Republican, said she had heard from several districts in her state that were cutting the hours of teachers’ aides. When such cuts are made to employees working with special-needs students, there could be troubling consequences, she argued.

“It really opens the systems up to lawsuits,” Ms. Brooks said.

Philosophical Debate

But Democrats questioned Mr. Benigni and other witnesses about whether it was fair to ask K-12 support staff and college adjuncts to work with no health insurance—and questioned who would pay for their coverage, if employers refused to do so.

Rep. Robert Andrews, a New Jersey Democrat, pressed Mr. Jandris and Mr. Benigni to explain how hourly employees and other uninsured workers could ever obtain coverage if districts and colleges were not required to provide it. The lawmaker cited statistics from Mr. Benigni’s community on the large percentage of residents who lack coverage.

“How do you think we should provide health insurance to those families?” Mr. Andrews asked the superintendent.

“That’s really a discussion for you to have,” Mr. Benigni responded, “but for me as a school system leader, whose job in charge is to educate kids, you can’t take money at a time when resources are so thin, from students who need that upper hand, too.”

“We’d agree that money shouldn’t come from schools,” Mr. Andrews told the superintendent. “Where do you think it should come from to help those citizens get health insurance?”

Before the discussion could go much further, Mr. Kline turned it over to other lawmakers. After the hearing, the Meriden superintendent said, “Ideally, I’d like everyone to have coverage.”

“But at [some] point, the resources need to be in place,” Mr. Benigni added. “Otherwise, the resources are coming right from our kids. They haven’t been getting the type of support they deserve, either.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 2013 edition of Education Week as K-12, Colleges Swept Up in Debate on Federal Health-Care Law

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