The state teachers association says that a revived attempt in the state legislature to consolidate public school employee health insurance plans statewide is a threat to unions' ability to negotiate contracts with districts.
More than 200 teachers union members, from across the Eastside, gathered to speak out against the legislation Saturday morning at .
Legislators from Mercer Island are supporting the legislation. 41st District State Sen. Steve Litzow (R-Mercer Islasnd) is a part of a bipartisan group of cosponsors for Senate Bill 6442, which would end local bargaining of medical, dental and vision insurance plans and creates a new state administered health insurance plan. State Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island) is one of a number of bipartisan cosponsors of its companion, House Bill 2724.
Michele Miller, the president of the Bellevue Education Association said the proposed bill should be viewed in the same light as attempts in Wisconsin and in several other states to limit the bargaining power of unions.
"This is directly an assault on your bargaining rights," she said. "This is definitely going to make a statement on how bargaining rights go in this state."
The assembly was organized by teachers union affiliate Sammamish Uniserv Council, which includes as members the Issaquah Education Association and the Lake Washington Education Association, as a "Rally to Protect our Future."
The 41st District's third legislator, State Rep. Marcie Maxwell (D-Renton) made an appearance at the rally to address the teachers.
Supporters of the change say it will lower costs in the long-term and provide better coverage for school district employees who are not teachers.
However, the changes would mean that unions could not include health care coverage when negotiating contracts. Teachers unions representatives also point out that the State Office of Financial Management reports that the change would have startup costs of $45 million over the next four years.
Bellevue's Miller also said it was an irresponsible expenditure of money that could otherwise be spent on education.
"This is not an acceptable way to be focusing on health care right now when they've got a budget to pass … At a time of budget cutting, this costs money. That's money that should be spent on education — not for creating another layer of state bureaucracy," she said.
Senate Bill 6442 died in the regular session, but was revived last Monday as is part of a budget proposed by State Senate Republicans and breakaway Democrats in Olympia.
Maxwell told the educators she and her allies in Olympia — including Budget Chair Rep. Ross Hunter (D-Bellevue) — were focusing on preserving the K-12 budget. But she asked the educators for help in keeping other legislators who were "a bit distracted right now with particular issues" to stay "on task."
"That's one of the things that you are helping with," she said. "This last week we had a new budget … introduced in the Senate, but they haven't brought it over yet. We hope they don't. But if they do, we'll fix it. That's really all there is to it!"
Union members circulated a letter and post cards urging local legislators to abandon the bill and seek alternatives.
According to materials distributed at the meeting, the consolidation of health insurance plans would lead to higher costs, reduce benefits, eliminate competition, expand state government and reward poor customer service. Specifically, the Washington Education Association says that employees will pay $25 million more through higher premiums and "point-of-service cost sharing", shift future cost risks to school districts for the costs above state allocation and cost more per teacher than it does now.
Several teachers also shared their stories of how changes in health care coverage could negatively affect their families.
Mercer Island resident Jan Gable, a Lake Washington School District Teacher, spoke about her serious health condition. Three years ago she was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, and every 48 hours she must administer her medicine through a heart catheter, which was visible under her arm as she spoke. The proposed health insurance bill could interfere with her access to specialists, upper limits of health coverage due to her expensive care and out-of-pocket expenses.
"My medicine costs $40,000 a month (before insurance)," she said. "I'm very lucky that we had a house to sell — But there are many patients who aren't so lucky. We have a situation where upper limits aren't defined, and that could become a critical issue."
Mercer Island Education Association President Tani Lindquist said she was happy with the high level of turnout for the rally, especially considering that the bill had only re-emerged last Monday as a threat to the MIEA's health insurance plan.
"It really speaks to the fact of how important this issue is," she said.