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Education Funding

Hill Lawmakers Wrangle Over Health-Care Law’s Costs to Schools, Colleges

By Sean Cavanagh & Alyssa Morones — November 14, 2013 4 min read
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A Capitol Hill hearing on the federal health care law’s impact on schools and colleges rehashed familiar, partisan rifts—but also set the stage for coming debates about whether those institutions should be obligated to provide coverage to part-time employees and support staff.

Republicans at the hearing of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, including Chairman John Kline, predicted that school systems would be forced to cut programs to account for the law’s price tag, and possibly scale back employees’ hours.

The Minnesota Republican warned of the “unintended consequences” of the law, and predicted it would result in reductions of the quality of insurance for some employees.

“You’re looking at dollars and cents, and you’re going to have to make choices,” 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 three-year-old measure’s benefits.

To his point, Democrats at the hearing said the 2010 federal measure 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.

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. (See Education Week’s recent story that explores the impact of the law on districts.)

Those worries were voiced at the hearing by Mark D. Benigni, the superintendent of the Meriden school system in Connecticut. While 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.

Benigni said the law could cost his 9,100-student district $4.6 million over time—the approximate cost of 58 teaching positions. The 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 pieces of the law.

“We will need to intervene with some staff that have elected higher wages for non-benefit eligible positions,” 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.”

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.

Congresswoman 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,” Brooks said.

But Democrats questioned 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 could pay for their coverage, if employers refused to do so.

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

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

“That’s really a discussion for you to have,” 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,” Andrew said. “Where do you think it should come from to help those citizens get health insurance?”

Before the discussion could go much further, 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,” Benigni added. “Otherwise, the resources are coming right from our kids. They haven’t been getting the type of support they deserve, either.”

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