N.J.'s Largest Teachers Union Pushing Hard For Vote On Health Care Overhaul

New Jersey’s largest teachers union is putting pressure on the Democratic-controlled Assembly to vote on a plan to overhaul educators’ health insurance plans that has stalled in the lower house.

The proposal, the result of an improbable deal between rival leaders of the Senate and the powerful New Jersey Education Association, passed the state Senate nearly three months ago but has not been taken up by the Assembly. The NJEA has now launched TV and online commercials and ads promoting the health care overhaul, while encouraging its members to contact lawmakers.

“We’re making the case, member by member, that this is the right thing to do,” said NJEA spokesman Steve Baker.

“We’re pushing to get this done as quickly as possible in order to get this in place for the coming school year and for districts and our members to realize that savings,” Baker said. “We need to get it passed as soon as possible so we can get the new plan implemented.”

Union President Marie Blistan said in an op-ed last week that amid this crushing economic crisis — Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration is cutting proposed school aid by $335 million — the bill has the potential to save school districts a combined $600 million a year through lower benefit costs.

“For a state in economic crisis, this a rare opportunity to cut costs without hurting working families,” she wrote.

Asked whether he supports the bill and intended to put it to a vote, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, offered that “We continue to consider it and we look forward to resolving it soon.”

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and the NJEA worked quietly for months before striking a deal in March to cut $1 billion in health care costs for government employers and teachers. Previously, the NJEA had partnered with the speaker on a health care bill the Senate president declared dead on arrival.

The latest proposal reduces costs for taxpayers and cuts premiums for teachers, key goals of the Senate leader and New Jersey teachers, respectively.

Under the bill (S2273), the School Employees’ Health Benefits Program would eliminate all but the two health care plans most popular with teachers — NJ Direct 10 and NJ Direct 15 — and introduce two new, lower-cost plans, with the goal of phasing out Direct 10 and Direct 15.

Teachers have for years clamored for lower premiums than what they’re required to pay under state law, which are anywhere from 3 percent to 35 percent of the total plan cost. The Senate Majority Office says they stand to save thousands of dollars a year in premiums each if they choose one of the two new plans, one of which the deals authors hoped would be available this summer.

That plan, New Jersey Educators Health Plan, is still considered Platinum by Affordable Care Act standards but shifts some out-of-network costs to teachers to encourage them to stay in-network and lowers reimbursements to out-of-network providers. It also includes mandatory generic prescription drugs and requires teachers to pick up the tab if they want name brand instead.

Districts that independently contract for health benefits would be required to offer comparable plans.

Sweeney and the NJEA estimated school districts could save $640 million a year, with another $404 million in savings for teachers and $30 million for the state, though actual savings will depend on how many teachers opt for one of the new plans.

With support from Sweeney and the teachers union, it seemed to represent the clearest path yet to rein in health care costs. But after moving swiftly through the Senate — proposed and passed in the span of two weeks — it has made no progress in the Assembly.

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, said he hasn’t heard much in the way of opposition toward the bill, which has support in his caucus.

“I think the bill makes sense. I think it gives options to the employees which would lower their costs and also lower the costs to the state. So it looks like a win-win situation to me, to the best of my knowledge,” he said Tuesday.

Sweeney said he’s hopeful Coughlin will post the bill “once he’s satisfied with his review" of the measure.

“The sooner the better,” he added.

“School districts right now across the state are calling and asking when it’s going to get signed into law,” he said. “They’re not going to get additional funding this year, and for districts that are losing funding this is a big way to help districts save money.”

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