NJEA, state treasurer clash over health costs

{child_byline}CLAIRE LOWE

Staff Writer

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The state Treasury Department took aim at the New Jersey Education Association this month for not agreeing to changes in members’ health insurance coverage that may have led to reduced premiums and taxpayer savings.

In response, the statewide teachers union has called out Treasurer Ford Scudder for using taxpayer money for what it called a political stunt to continue a years-long feud between the union and the administration.

“First of all, it is false. It’s misleading. It is clearly political propaganda, and it represents an egregious abuse of taxpayer dollars, as well as an egregious abuse of political power,” said Steve Baker, spokesman for the NJEA, which represents about 200,000 teachers.

On Oct. 20, teachers in 291 of the state’s school districts received a letter from the New Jersey treasurer dated Oct. 16 that laid out background details behind a 13 percent increase in health insurance premiums for 2018. The letter criticized the teachers union for not agreeing to changes to its plan that may have saved teachers and taxpayers money.

New Jersey teachers pay a portion of their health insurance premium, and the remainder is funded by local taxpayers. If premiums increase, the burden increases for both teachers and taxpayers.

In the letter, Scudder said he was sending the information as a service to NJEA members to “understand the reason you will be paying that much more for health care in 2018.”

Treasury spokesman Willem O. Rijksen did not provide further clarity on why the letter was sent but said “the facts speak for themselves.”

Scudder said in the letter that, for the past two years, the state has attempted to work with representatives from the State Health Benefits Program, which provides benefits to local and state government employees and their beneficiaries, and School Employees’ Health Benefits Program “to enact reasonable, cost-saving changes to your healthcare plan.” He said the changes had no effect on the “quantity or quality of care.”

Rijksen said those changes include increased emergency room co-pays; reduced reimbursement for out-of-network acupuncture, chiropractic care and physical therapy; mandatory use of generics; and incentivizing tiered plans.

While the SHBP was changed, resulting in a zero percent premium increase for local government employees, the SEHBP was not, Scudder said.

He said premiums rose 8.4 percent in 2017 for members enrolled in the SEHBP and will increase by another 13 percent in 2018.

“In plan year 2018 alone, the NJEA will cost their members $20 million and all other New Jersey taxpayers $170 million by being unwilling to do what even their fellow public employee union leadership realizes is right,” he said.

Baker said that while there is an increase in the premiums in 2018, it is inaccurate to state the changes proposed by the state would have had no effect on members.

“The changes that were being demanded by the state would have had a significant impact on both our members’ access to health care and on the cost (of) health care for them,” he said.

Baker said that even if the teachers agreed to the changes, premiums still would have increased about 8 percent.

“They worked really hard to make it appear that the entire 13 percent increase was due to not making changes,” Baker said.

Baker said the SHBP and the SEHBP cannot be compared apples to apples because they cover different groups of people.

Gary Melton Sr., of Mays Landing, president of the Atlantic County Council of Education Associations, said he has never received anything like this letter from the state. He said some teachers thought it was a hoax.

“Obviously, they were upset at us not wanting to change our level of coverage, and I guess they decided this was the way they were going to fight that,” said Melton, who has taught in the Atlantic City School District for 17 years.

Melton called this a “new level of low” from Gov. Chris Christie’s administration, whom he said has an animosity toward teachers.

“It’s not a good way of getting us to work collaboratively with the state and trying to fix problems,” Melton said.

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Contact: 609-272-7251 CLowe@pressofac.com

Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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