School stays with Security
On split vote, board votes in favor of employee morale over cost savings
BY BRIAN WILSON
Emotions were high Monday night as the Medford School Board voted 4-3 to stay with Security Health Plan (SHP) for employee health insurance.
The district, through its brokers at Spectrum, put the health insurance out for proposals this year. SHP came in with a proposal that would increase premiums by 4%, which would increase cost to the district by $186,852. Aspirus Arise submitted a comparable plan with an 8.11% decrease compared to the current rate, which would have resulted in the district paying $371,128 less than the current year. The Arise plan is a narrow-network option and those who wanted to continue seeing providers outside of the district would need to pay for wrap-around coverage.
The school district’s budget included funding for up to a 10% increase, so regardless of which option was selected the district would be spending less than what was budgeted.
Board member Barb Knight While many on staff would not be impacted by the change because they already utilize Aspirus providers, the issue drew heated concern from staff members with a staff survey showing overwhelming support to stay with SHP.
“A reduction in benefits package was a slap in the face to me,” said teacher Becky Risch during the public comment portion of the meeting. She went on to state that she did not understand why it was an issue since the district had budgeted more than enough to cover the increase. She also expressed disagreement that it was comparable coverage since she said it would result in increased out of pocket expenses for the employees. “Any savings the district will see will be at the financial expense of employees,” she said.
Teacher Jenny Shipman also spoke against changing insurance. She expressed concern that increasing the insurance cost, specifically for hourly employees, would result in additional employees leaving the district to work elsewhere. Shipman described the district as being in “morale turmoil” and that she felt changing insurance providers would make things worse. She also addressed observations that the narrow plan offered by Aspirus Arise is what others in the community already have and suggested that rather than reducing benefits for school district employees, work needs to be done to bring everybody else up to that level.
City resident Bryan Bormann said he recognized it was a difficult decision for the board, but also urged members to remember that wages and benefits come from the same pool of resources and not “separate silos.”
During the board discussion, there was a sharp split between those who wanted to take advantage of more than $560,000 in potential savings from switching providers and those who were more concerned about keeping the status quo.
Board member Brian Hallgren objected to the idea that the district was looking at cutting benefits. Becky Gorst of Spectrum agreed, “It is not a cut in benefi ts.” She instead said it would result in a change in providers.
Hallgren said he felt both Arise and SHP had excellent providers. “I can’t tell you if they are better than the other, that is opinion,” he said.
“There is no benefits cut,” echoed board member Mark Temme describing himself as a “numbers dude.” He said he looked at it asking the question of if there is a way the district can use the money instead of just giving it to SHP. He called on the district to use creativity to reduce the out of pocket impact for employees wanting to buy the wrap around option to have a broader network.
Board president Dave Fleegel disagreed with the focus on the potential savings to the district. “It is not about the money, it is about who they see and about their relationship,” he said.
Temme noted that Aspirus owns the local hospital, is the primary local provider for healthcare and has many employees who live in the district. District administrator Pat Sullivan also noted that Aspirus provides an athletic trainer to the school and that the district does business with Aspirus for the Wellness and EAP. In addition Aspirus Foundation has financially support mental health programs.
“We paid $1.3 million in claims through Aspirus, it is not as if we are denying them business,” Fleegel said. He said he received feedback in the form of emails, letters, and comments from people who would be affected by the change who had established relationships with providers. “Tell me how we cannot afford a 4% increase?” he said, making the motion to renew with SHP and accept the premium increase. His motion was seconded by board member Barb Knight.
Board member Cheryl Wibben attended the meeting by phone and raised the issue of what sort of rate guarantees are there for future years. The brokers explained that while Arise offered not to exceed increases depending on the usage rate, SHP would. Instead SHP offered a “retroactive refund.”
“It is nothing I have seen before,” said Cory Toth-LaPointe of Spectrum, explaining that it would not go into affect until April of next year and would be dependent on having the 2019 loss ratio. “I wouldn’t call it a not to exceed,” Gorst said.
Halgren raised concern about the message the district was sending to prospective bidders in the future suggesting that the district was only using them as a negotiating tool to reduce the increase with SHP. He said the district would be walking away from $560,000 in savings by staying with SHP. “What in the hell is the number that causes us to switch to Aspirus?” he asked.
Board discussion then went toward perceived quality of care. “I don’t know that you can say the service is going to suck,” Wibben said. She noted the majority of people she talked to go to Medford for their needs and that she doesn’t hear disgruntled people.
Fleegel agreed saying that he utilizes Aspirus for healthcare and doesn’t have any specific complaints.
The question was raised at what point do other providers not submit bids if the district just keeps going with SHP? Fleegel said he did not think the district was at that point. He said the district pays $5 million for insurance and that any salesman would put in a bid for that.
“We are paying a lot of money and we are not getting what we need,” said Mark Reuter, observing that the American healthcare system sucks. Reuter is a doctor at Aspirus Medford Hospital and as with past insurance decisions announced he would be abstaining from the vote. While saying he wouldn’t go as far as Medicare for all, Reuter said the decision facing the district is a lot of money and that unfortunately, the decisions would not be getting any better to make for years to come. “It is a shame the system is what it is,” he said, noting a need for an overhaul.
Board member Paul Dixon strongly opposed making a change. “There is no way morally I could support the Aspirus program,” he said. He described the relationship between Aspirus and WPS (which provides the wrap-around option) as being, “‘Can you get in bed with me and take the undesirables off my back.’ And the other saying ‘Yeah I will do that, and we will charge them up the ass for it.’” “It is bullying, harassment and discrimination,” Dixon said.
Fleegel brought the discussion back to employee morale. He said there were times the district could afford to do things and times where they needed to make cuts. He said he could not see where the district could put the dollars from the savings to maintain morale.
Hallgren said he keeps hearing the morale thing and noted that the board has been supportive of teachers and staff with things like pay schedules, expanding the post retirement benefits and other things. He said he understood that healthcare is emotional, but also said he had a hard time coming up with how the plans are different.
“They are asking to keep their doctors,” Knight replied.
In the end, the board voted 4-3 to stay with SHP. Voting in favor were Fleegel, Knight, Dixon and Oralee Dittrich. Opposed were Wibben, Temme and Halgren. Board members Reuter and Dede Strama abstained citing a conflict of interest by being Aspirus employees.
In other business, board members:
_ Approved a new transportation contract with Krug Bus Service to provide busing for students from 2019-2022. In the initial year, the district will spend approximately $19,150 more because it increased the base rate while eliminating the clause about the number of days in the school year. The district also increased the amount paid for school being called off from $2,300 per day to $2,300 per day and increased mileage cost 2.5%.
_ Discussed the possibility of using an online survey for a board evaluation tool to determine the effectiveness of the board as determined by board members. Hallgren suggested the district should look at discussing school district governance noting that there were times he felt the board was going beyond what was normal as far as its role in the operations of the district.
_ Formally set the tax rate at $8.33 per $1,000 of equalized value. Earlier that evening electors had approved the rate during the annual meeting.
_ Set the date for the December board meeting for Wednesday Dec. 18. The board had originally scheduled it for December 16, but this would have put it in conflict with the high school band concert. Knight noted that from a community standpoint it sent a bad message to schedule in conflict with the concert.