Gov. Nathan Deal says it’s only fair to cut health insurance subsidies to school bus drivers and cafeteria workers because thousands of similarly part-time state employees don’t get coverage.
But one group of part-time state employees, and their families, enjoy taxpayer-subsidized health insurance and aren’t likely to loose it: Georgia legislators. The same part-timers who are now deciding whether to keep part-time school bus drivers and cafeteria workers on the State Health Benefit Plan rolls.
The state spends about $1.2 million each year subsidizing the health insurance of lawmakers, according to figures obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from the Department of Community Health. DCH runs the State Health Benefit Plan (SHBP), which covers 650,000 teachers, state employees, retirees, school personnel, and legislators.
Lawmakers are getting an ear full about Deal’s proposal to eliminate funding to cover 11,500 part-time school workers, which would save the state about $103 million.
“We are part-time employees of the state and we have access to the State Health Benefit Plan,” said state Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta. “Why on earth would we throw school bus drivers under the bus?”
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Many others just think cutting off school staffers is a bad idea, arguing that it could lead to a severe shortage of drivers.
“I am a supporter of giving them insurance,” said state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta. “There is nothing more important than children. If they get in a school bus, I want to make sure they have an excellent, qualified driver.”
Deal made the proposal last month when he released his $21.8 billion state budget for fiscal 2016, which begins July 1. The state would no longer subsidize insurance for “non-certified” school staffers who work less than 30 hours a week, starting Jan. 1.
DCH officials said the part of the insurance plan that covers “non-certified” school staffers — which also includes administrative staff — has been bleeding money, accounting for a $135 million loss last year.
But Deal said cutting part-timers off the state subsidy is also a “fairness” issue.
“We have to be mindful that to require someone to work at least 30 hours (to receive coverage) is also a requirement we have for other state employees,” Deal said. “And if we make exceptions …. then in fairness, we have to look at employees who are in the state system.
“I think more and more people are asking the question why is it that people who work less than 30 hours a week are being able to participate when some other state employees could not.”
Asked about the apparent double-standard regarding lawmakers getting coverage, Deal spokesman Brian Robinson responded, “Certain jobs are treated differently by Georgia law.
“Part-time school workers are part of SHBP, people doing similar jobs in state agencies are not.
“The governor is seeking a way to keep SHBP sustainable long term. What he proposed is a starting point for negotiations that will go through the process of debate and amendment in the Legislature. The Legislature will have a deciding role in how this plays out.”
Excluding the University System, state government has more than 9,000 part-time workers who work less than 30 hours per week and are not eligible for benefits such as health coverage. In some agencies, such as the Department of Natural Resources, about a third of employees work part-time.
But at least 377 legislators and dependents are on the State Health Benefit Plan, paying the same premiums as other members and receiving the same coverage. That figure doesn’t include retired lawmakers, who can vest into the system for life and keep the coverage even if they move into lucrative jobs, such as lobbying the General Assembly.
Most lawmakers are paid a salary of about $17,000 a year for their service and earn $173 per day when they are in session, in committee meetings or sometimes while working on state business. While they are considered part-time, they can sign up for health insurance once they take office.
Danette Corcoran, a 15-year Fayette County school bus driver, called it “tacky” for lawmakers to consider cutting part-time school workers while keeping their own insurance.
“We’ll lose half of our people,” said Corcoran, who made less than $13,000 driving bus last year. “The reason bus drivers have driven a bus is for the benefits. Who do you think is going to drive for no benefits?”
TRAGIC, a group founded by Georgians covered by the State Health Benefit Plan to protest insurance changes the state made last year, has been pushing its 17,000 members to contact lawmakers in support of bus drivers and cafeteria workers.
“They perform an essential service,” said John Palmer, a Cobb County school band director and TRAGIC member. “I find it very hypocritical that folks like the governor say part-time folks don’t get it (coverage) but legislators do.”