LITTLE ROCK — The three-day session that ended early Saturday morning when the House and Senate gave final passage to a package of bills designed to stabilize health insurance premiums for teachers and public school employees accomplished its goals, Gov. Mike Beebe and legislative leaders said.
They also said the success of the session will ultimately be measured by the work of a task force created to review both the teacher insurance plan and the public employees plan and recommended structural modifications that keep rates affordable.
"I don’t think going forward that any of us know the answer to this problem to this health insurance crisis that we have," said Rep. Tommy Wren, D-Melbourne, sponsor of House Bill 1011, which created the task force, along with Senate Bill SB 6 by Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home. "But I think this task force will work together, it will be members of the legislature … It’s an opportunity for all 135 of you, 100 house members and 35 senators to be involved and find a fix for this problem."
Both bills received overwhelming support in the House and Senate early Saturday and are expected to be signed into law Monday by Gov. Mike Beebe, as are all of the other bills passed during the session.
"Everyone knows that fundamental material change is going to have to happen to these plans," House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said. "The time of (the session) … made it difficult to make that wholesale change in a short period, so I think what was put together in that legislation … the framework needed to move forward and deal with it."
Lawmakers headed home about 12:30 a.m. Saturday after giving gave approval to four proposals designed to stabilize health insurance premiums for teachers and public school employees.
The series of bills — identical measures in the Senate and House — included both short-term and long-term measures.
The short-term, stopgap measure, Senate Bill 2 by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, uses $43 million in state surplus funds to avoid the looming spike in teachers’ insurance premiums in 2014.
The long-term measures diverts $36 million a year to the insurance system to hold down costs. The bills passed include:
• SB 4 by Rapert, and matching bill HB 1012 by Rep. Ann Clemmer, R-Benton, which diverts $16 million in state funding now going to school facilities programs that are being phased out to help with school employees’ insurance premiums, beginning in the 2014-15 fiscal year
• SB 5 by Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, and matching bill HB 1009 by McLean, which redirects $10 million in state funding for teacher professional development. The legislation reduces funding for professional development from $54 to $32.20 per student in each district and eliminated a requirement that teachers complete 60 hours of professional development per year, beginning in the 2014-15 fiscal year.
• SB 6 by Key and HB 1011 by Wren, which creates a task force to study all aspects of insurance programs for state employees, including teachers and other school personnel.
Also passed by both the House and Senate was HB 1002 by Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock, which repeals Act 954 of this year’s regular session.
Act 954, also sponsored by Davis, eased regulatory requirements on municipalities and industries that discharge minerals into Arkansas waterways not used for drinking water. The federal Environmental Protection Agency objected to the law and said it would step in and begin reviewing all water permits.
Key and Wren said the 14-member task force, which would include state insurance officials and current and retired state employees, along with current and retired teachers, would have until the end of June 2014 to recommend structural changes to the insurance programs. The report would be considered by legislative committees in advance of the 2015 legislative session.
Along with creating the task force, the legislation stipulates that all the teacher insurance plans will include a deductible starting in 2015 and allow for members of the Bronze plan to participate in health savings accounts.
Key said the legislation creating the task force is specific in its intent.
"It says we’re not going to continue to bail out the system," he told reporters last week. "Reforms are going to have to take place, and if they don’t take place these funding streams that we’re putting there, we’re going to pull those back down the road without adopting real reforms."
The legislation also allows for the Employee Benefit Division board to be removed and new members appointed, Wren said while presenting the proposal on the House floor Friday.
The governor said Friday he was "absolutely confident the task force will be very serious and we will help them any way we can to try to help them and ensure a systemic change going forward that allows the system to be more viable."
"The good news is our teachers are not going to be hit with a catastrophic rate increase, they’re going to get a 10 percent rather than a 50 percent increase in their health insurance," Beebe said.
Health insurance rates for school employees have been rising for several years because of a lack of funding from the state and local school districts. Also, a $10 million catastrophic claims fund was wiped out by five claims in 2012 and 2013 that each totaled more than $1 million. The Legislature this year appropriated $8 million in new money to keep premium rates at current levels next year.
As lawmakers considered ways to hold down the premium increases, officials in September pushed the enrollment period for employees covered by the health insurance plan from Oct. 1 to Nov. 1.
The three-day legislative session cost tax payers about nearly $60,000, House and Senate spokesmen said, adding the Senate’s cost was about $18,000 and the House’s about $50,000.