Public school teachers lobby for affordable health insurance

A couple hundred members of New Jersey’s largest teachers union rallied in Trenton with boxes containing 116,000 petitions demanding that lawmakers and the governor support a package of bills to protect jobs and lower health care premiums. One third grade teacher complained that health insurance has become unaffordable.

“Should a teacher in New Jersey ever have to decide between paying her mortgage or getting her chemotherapy?” asked BethAnne Augsbach.

Public school teachers claim a 2011 law called Chapter 78 forces them to pay a share of insurance premiums that have increased so quickly that it’s outpacing their annual raises so they’re losing money. To fix it, they’re backing a bill that would link their premium share to a percentage of their salaries, not to health care policies negotiated by school districts. The bill also requires a cap.

“So that our members are still paying into health benefits, but there would be a cap that would stop the negative take home pay that is occurring,” said New Jersey Education Association President Marie Blistan. “That is unsustainable, it is unfair and it is fixable.”

Another bill supported by the NJEA would prohibit school boards from privatizing work done by cafeteria, janitorial and security services.

“Our employment should not depend on the whims of school board administrations,” said school security officer James Frazier.

While NJEA officers walked several boxes of petitions over to the governor’s Trenton office, he wasn’t there, most of the group headed for the State House Annex where they squeezed into committee meetings and lobbied lawmakers. Assemblyman Dan Benson is one co-sponsor.

“I think it’s time to have a fresh look. When Chapter 78 was passed, I opposed it, back in 2011. And I think now that we’ve had eight years of experience, we know that there are things that aren’t working with that,” said Benson.

“We felt that the Chapter 78 minimum contributions were in fact a fair plane from which to work,” said Frank Beluscio, deputy executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association.

The School Boards Association will oppose the bills, and says changing Chapter 78 rules could end in tax hikes and layoffs.

“If you limit the employee contributions, who then pays the difference? And that would be the employer — namely, the taxpayer. We feel we’re on a fair plane right now, and going forward we should really be concentrating on ways to control the cost of health coverage,” said Beluscio.

Former Gov. Chris Christie, along with Senate President Steve Sweeney championed Chapter 78 as a way to reduce taxpayer burdens. Christie’s gone, but Murphy enjoyed NJEA support and been receptive to union agendas. But Sweeney still wants public unions to pay a bigger share of pension and health care costs. And there’s no love lost between the Senate president and the NJEA, which opposed his re-election.

For now, the bills have been posted for debate in committee. But the NJEA will continue to flex its political muscle, well aware that the entire Assembly is up for re-election in November.

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