By ROBERT HELDE
During the October 22, 2019 Hernando County School District (HCSD) meeting several community members presented their opinions on the health insurance premium increase for the 2020 policy renewal. In addition to the community input, Lisa Becker, Executive Director of Business Services, spoke on behalf of the item. The agenda item in question is the renewal of health insurance through Florida Blue with a ten percent premium increase. Several affected individuals, including teachers, paraprofessional staff and the leader of the Hernando County Teachers Assn. (HCTA) spoke at the Tuesday meeting.
The first commenter was Laura Santiago, a teacher of 16 years who expressed concern over the increase in health insurance costs.
Santiago stated, “...basically it’s $100 a month for me, so that’s $50 a paycheck, and it’s a hardship, so I don’t know how else to say that… I’m just hoping that you’ve exhausted all options possible, before we as the teachers have to eat that amount of money.”
Laura closed by saying, “I expected an increase, but not that much of an increase.”
Superintendent John Stratton responded to Santiago’s comments saying,
“... I will tell you that the negotiation with Blue Cross Blue Shield, that part of it is finished. What hasn’t finished is, we are still in bargaining negotiations with the union, so what, if any, of that rate the Board will cover is still to be determined, this comes out first because Open Enrollment happens and then we have, by January 1, a new insurance plan… With that said, we are definitely, we spoke about it today at the workshop, we are definitely committed to going out and shopping around… whatever we decide on won’t happen and go into effect until January of ‘21.... Yes, it’s a ten percent premium increase and I understand it’s a lot higher when it comes to your (HCSD employees’) actual payments… It’s a horrible amount, none of us want to see insurance go up. We’re going to do everything we can to help curb that cost and-or bring it down in the future. We do compare ourselves to surrounding counties and we look at, ‘ok what are they doing that we’re not, or what could we be doing?’ We’ll be investigating that further… The Insurance Committee… is open to the public. I encourage you, come to those, learn. If it is a communication issue, I own that, and will communicate better next year and will get it out to you earlier.
The next commenter was Misty Loushot (sp) who has taught in Hernando County for the last 13 years. Loushot (sp) expressed the same predominant concern of incurring a substantial increase in monthly insurance costs. Additionally she offered a few ideas as alternatives. “We’ve cut curriculum, so maybe use the money saved there to cover our premiums… Maybe cut jobs at the district level and move them back in the classroom, those classrooms that are taught by subs (substitute teachers).”
Several more teachers, paraprofessionals, and other staff spoke. Most expressed similar concerns regarding the increase in insurance premiums. Some expressed that they or their colleagues may be forced out of Hernando County or out of teaching altogether. Susan Jackson was one of the last people to speak and provided a different perspective. “There is an opportunity to fill an information vacuum, to work between HCTA and HCSB (Hernando County School Board) representatives and provide answers to some frequently asked questions because I am literally hearing the same questions from both sides… it will at least help provide a larger lense…”
In response to the comments made, board chair Susan Duval stated, “...Where we’re going to end up I don’t know but please know that we do care, we are trying... our best, and will continue to do our best to help everyone, but it is a daunting task.”
The item was removed from the consent agenda by Jimmy Lodato prompting Lisa Becker to be brought up to present, specifically regarding there being opportunities to alleviate the cost next year.
“I spoke on it… at the workshop and what we discussed was that it’s definitely a possibility and we will be looking into that next year… Susan Jackson did approach me, she and I are going to get together and work on these FAQ’s and some of that is going to be to educate our employees on the costs outside of our district because we regularly look at that. That is not something that we take for granted that our employees can afford anything… We have very rich plans and therefore we have rich costs, so in order to balance, we did add that third plan which is a lower cost plan…. It’s very possible that we can provide another option that is very close to zero cost but I will share in the FAQ’s what that means because our neighboring districts that offer zero cost plans are very expensive out of pocket…. Unfortunately we cannot do it this year, so it will be for next year.”
Jimmy Lodato made an appeal for the Board to address the rising costs by any means possible.
Following this, Gus Guadagnino clarified that the Board would not be voting on how to deal with the rising cost but the renewal of insurance. Therefore, if the agenda item failed to pass, it would leave the HCSD out of compliance and would leave its employees without health insurance. Several board members echoed the sentiments of the citizen commenters and made statements encouraging citizen involvement in both local and state government.
A vote was held, passing 4-1 with the dissenting vote belonging to Jimmy Lodato.