LITTLE ROCK — The effort in the state Legislature to reach a consensus on helping teachers and other school employees avoid soaring insurance premiums was down to the numbers Monday.
“It appears (legislators) are in the vote-counting phase, that’s what we are hearing,” said Matt DeCample, spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe.
“There does seem to be a continued momentum, and once things get moving they can move pretty quick, but we’re not getting ahead of ourselves,” DeCample said, adding that the governor’s office was reviewing the drafts of possible legislation that lawmakers might consider.
House and Senate leaders said Friday they had nailed down a set of proposals for comprehensive reforms to avoid the steadily rising school health insurance premiums, including a nearly 50 percent hike beginning Jan. 1.
Monday, legislative leaders were discussing the proposals with fellow lawmakers to determine if there was consensus of support. The governor has said that if there is a consensus to a plan he could support he would call the Legislature into special session.
“It’s still a very active and fluid situation, but it looks like things are progressing,” DeCample said Monday afternoon.
Under the proposal, $43 million would come from the state budget surplus to limit the increase in premiums to 10 percent in January.
A long-term solution would direct $36 million annually to the school employees’ health-insurance plans. That would include $10 million from general revenue, $16 million from the school facilities program and $10 million from state funding for professional development.
Under the plan, about $18 million also would be passed on to school employees in the form of premiums, though that amount could be reduced as a result of reforms to be recommended by a task force that would review the entire system. The task force would be required to submit recommendations to the Legislature by June 30.
Long-term structural modifications of the system also would be part of the plan, including requiring the state Insurance Board, through the Employee Benefits Division, to provide more education to participants on plan options.
Also, two appointments would be added to the Insurance Board and the board chairman would be required to report to the House and Senate Insurance Commerce Commerce.
Other structural reforms proposed include requiring deductibles for all three insurance plans — currently the Gold Plan does not have a deductible — and adding incentives, like districts contributing to health savings accounts, to the Bronze Plan.
The plan proposes that along with cutting funding for professional development, the number of hours of professional development that teachers are required to complete each year be reduced from 60 to 36.
During the state Board of Education’s regular monthly meeting Monday, state Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell said some of the professional development programs currently available to teachers have no costs attached.
As for programs that do have costs associated with them, “there are other funds that can be moved over into professional development to help pay for those,” he said. “In other words, you can move (National School Lunch Act) money over to pay for training (to teach) at-risk students.”
Kimbrell also said a legislator asked him what schools would do with the extra days if some of the days now devoted to professional development were eliminated.
“My comment was, ‘Bring students into the classrooms,’” Kimbrell said.
Board member Brenda Gullett of Fayetteville said she hoped the board would have some input in whatever legislators decide to do.
“It’s on the table now. I think there’s a great opportunity for making some really good recommendations from us about that,” she said.
Reporter John Lyon contributed to this report.