Hawaii public school teachers will retain their health benefits but could have to pay more after they’re forced to enroll in the same health insurance fund as most other state employees next week.
More than 15,000 teachers and retirees are being rolled into the Employer-Union Health Benefits when their exclusive Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association expires in the new year, a move designed to reduce costs to the state.
"The bottom line is, nobody is going to lose coverage during this transition," EUTF Acting Administrator Marie Laderta said yesterday. "We don’t want them to get too anxious. We want to address the anxiety."
But it’s likely that teachers, who cost less to insure because they’re healthier than other government employees, will end up paying extra for the same coverage.
Costs could rise depending on the plans and coverage teachers choose, Laderta said. Details of health plan costs will be posted on the EUTF website by tomorrow.
"Some will increase, and some will be about the same," Laderta said.
Teachers intend to fight any hike in premiums caused by a change in administration, said attorney Paul Alston, who represents teachers suing to block changes in their health coverage.
Circuit Judge Karl Sakamoto ruled this month that teachers’ benefits must remain the same through the transition, a decision that Alston said should also prevent a rise in rates. He said he’ll argue that the EUTF hasn’t honored the judge’s order.
"Coverages provided to the teachers under the VEBA have to be maintained because they’re better and cheaper than the coverage provided under the EUTF," Alston said. "They’re offering the teachers a plan that appears superficially similar, but which in fact is not similar."
Another concern over the switch is that the financially troubled and understaffed EUTF won’t be able to handle the influx of new members, Alston said.
The EUTF — covering 161,000 employees, retirees and dependents — was losing more than $1 million a month earlier this year, and former Gov. Linda Lingle warned in April it could soon run out of money to pay doctors for medical bills.
Public employees enrolled in EUTF pay more than half of their total premiums due to rising costs, with the state government covering the remainder.
Teachers should prepare for higher costs, said House Labor Committee Chairman Karl Rhoads. The EUTF already raised premiums by 24 percent last year.
"Rates are going to go up," said Rhoads (D, Kakaako-Downtown). "It’s a big deal, and it’s big money, too. The expenses associated with providing health insurance for state and county employees add up."
Laderta wouldn’t discuss the EUTF’s financial condition or costs because of the ongoing lawsuit.
Hawaii State Teachers Association President Wil Okabe said he’s worried that EUTF still hasn’t announced how much health plans will cost with only a few days left before the health funds change.
"The teachers have to get the costs in order to make decisions," Okabe said. "Then we have to evaluate if those benefits are the same. If it’s not the same, then we’re going to have some concerns."
Health insurer Hawaii Medical Service Association, which covers 11,368 VEBA members, are prepared for the change, said spokeswoman Elisa Yadao.
"We want them to know we’re doing everything we can to make sure the transition is seamless," Yadao said. "They won’t see any disruption."
Hawaii lawmakers created VEBA as a teachers-only pilot program in 2005 that was set to end after three years. Legislators delayed its demise until Jan. 1 because of EUTF’s difficulties.
An open enrollment period for teachers to change their plans within EUTF will take place from Jan. 3 to Jan. 24.