When Health Care Costs Help Threaten Teachers We Need

Brookline's Edward Devotion school (John Phelan/Wikimedia Commons)

Brookline’s Edward Devotion school (John Phelan/Wikimedia Commons)

For many of us, there comes a moment when the high cost of health care suddenly turns from an abstract public issue into a deeply personal one. Often, it’s an astronomical out-of-pocket medical bill. Or a family calculation that the price of health insurance means no new car, or no summer trip.

For me, that moment came last week at a PTO meeting held at my children’s Brookline public school. At issue: plans to eliminate the “Enrichment and Challenge Support” program.

The program, formerly called “Gifted and Talented,” benefits all the school’s children, and works in every Brookline school. It promotes creativity and learning by inquiry. It collaborates with classroom teachers to help support advanced students, as well as all learners. It works with small groups of kids on topics from reading and writing to math, science and social studies.

Also on our school’s chopping block, separately: The part-time math tutor who works with small groups of children. (The one who prompted a friend’s son to exclaim recently, “Probabilities are fun!”)

In short, our vaunted school district may soon jettison some academic work that perhaps best embodies all the cutting-edge advice on how to train our children to thrive in the 21st-century world.

First, a disclaimer. School district budgets are exceedingly complex and depend on many imponderables, including state and federal budgets. I can by no means draw a direct line between Brookline’s health insurance costs and the decision to cut two of the best and most beloved teachers my children have had.

But here’s what struck me: The endangered program costs the district about $264,000 a year. And in response to a parent’s question, Brookline superintendent Bill Lupini said that for each percentage point that health insurance costs rise, the town must pay about $230,000.

Growth in premiums slowed during the recession, and the town had been hoping the rate news would be good. But it’s not. As of today, Alan Morse, chairman of the Brookline School Committee, says the district’s health insurance costs in the coming budget “are up about 3-1/2 percent, as opposed to the 2 percent which we were hoping for — which reduces the district’s resources available to fund next year’s budget.”

So suddenly, recent reports that the rise in health insurance is accelerating again bore a very human face — actually, two human faces at our school alone, two teachers who combine expertise and experience with passion for their work.

How bad would it be to lose them? Let us consider: Brookline has one of the best public school systems in a state renowned for good schools. It’s a Lake Wobegon-type place where most of the parents consider their children above average. They move there for the schools — and in fact, that is part of the problem. So many have been moving there lately that the schools are bursting at the seams and the budget seems to get harder every year.

What does it mean if a town like Brookline says, “We can no longer afford an educational program that cultivates creative thinking in all our children and helps keep our more advanced children engaged?”

Nothing good. That’s what it means.

See Harvard’s Tony Wagner on the “seven survival skills” needed to thrive in the 21st century here. All are cultivated by the Enrichment and Challenge Support program — and Wagner argues that all are needed not just by individuals but for the country to compete globally. Now multiply Brookline by towns like it all over the country.

I’ve heard of hospital chiefs who tell their staffers that they must help bring costs down because they cannot be the reason that towns must cut their police and firemen. I would add: Don’t be the reason we lose the kinds of teachers we all need.

The budget remains in flux, and will be discussed at a series of meetings in the coming days and weeks. Please stay tuned, and share your thoughts in the comments below.

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  • Virginia

    Please. If we take healthcare for the American people out of the private for-profit markets, and convert a broken system into a system of healthcare that is equally accessible to all, this would be not be a conversation. Healthcare for all is possible. Please see http://www.pnhp.org/

    Also, re: this concern, I just started a petition on the White House Petitions site, We the
    People. Check it out: http://wh.gov/G1cQ

  • careyg

    Posting for a friend with health insurance expertise: Health plans vary from a 3.8% drop this year to an 8.1% rise.
    Last year the GIC’s average increase was 1.4%
    I would not ask teachers to take an insurance plan that I’m not willing to take myself.
    But let’s just say that there’s a limited network plan that would keep costs flat. If premiums are flat (assuming $230k/point), the town would have $805k more next year than it is budgeting for now. Again, it is not fair to ask town employees to accept coverage that any of us would not take, but these are choices that all of us will likely face in the coming years if health care costs keep rising. A 3.5% increase is well below what most private sectors employers will face next year. 3/5% is, interestingly, just below the state’s soft cap for health care cost increases of 3.6%.
    Town officials can’t force employees to move to the cheapest plans. They can give employees incentives to encourage them to switch to lower cost plans.

  • Reasonable?

    I think that this a problem of economic extenalities.

    We have a health care system where providers don’t know or discuss costs.

    Consumers (patients) don’t know costs but they want good care.
    Currently, consumers prefer high premiums and low copays, which encourages massive hiddent costs.

    The results:
    Schools cut programs to pay for health care costs.
    Employees simultaneously endure lower raises and health care premium increases on a yearly basis..

    Until consumers are make decisions based on costs and quality, health care will continue to devour our public and private expenditures.

    this is our tragedy of the commons.

    • CircusMcGurkus

      No, it’s not a tragedy of the commons. That is a bad analogy. There are no “consumers” of medical care – there are patients who need help and while money may enter their minds, most people will not consider cost if their child is ill. That is obscene. Doctors are not necessarily bad people but they are unwilling to see how corrupt their industry is and so they play along: it is more important to provide a service that can be reimbursed than it is to determine the appropriate service. That is not medical care; that is bucking up the hospital at the expense of the patient.

      This is GREED on the part of the medical establishment. I know people like the bells and whistles here, but MA actually delivers medical care near the bottom of the nation and the cost is higher than everywhere else. Because it is mandated, yet voters have NO SAY in how the system functions, it is taxation without representation but that tax does NOT go to the public coffer where it could do some good (and which I support – with representation), it goes to private industry and enormous conglomerates that call themselves non-profits which is just a huge scam on the American people.
      No one knows how much anything costs because they are permitted to keep their books closed. This was exposed in detail in a recent Time Magazine article but is obvious to every thinking person on the planet. The hospitals know how good they have it and they are some of the most prolific employers in the state so they have legislators by the short hairs. People need to stand up. Our kids have to matter more than hospital administrators and insurance company executives vacations, mcmansions and BMWs. They just do.

      • Reasonable?

        Circus,

        I disagree strongly.
        We have intranspent competition based on reputation and costs are often shited to premiums.
        Patients are consumers of health care.
        The health care costs for children (even sick ones) are not what is driving health care cost esclation.

        MA has lots of health care providers and insurers which makes it a great place for competition on cost and quality.

        We need consumer….or Patient (if you prefer) activism.
        We need to demand price transparency and choice.

        If we act on that information our individual and collective cost will go down rapidly.
        Health care is not significantly different from any other aspect of our lives.

        • jefe68

          We don’t have a choice. Health care is not something I think most people want to shop around for like a car. Most Americans refuse to admit that the market based health care system we have is broken. The conservatives haul out that old meme about competition and that the market will prevail. We have that now and it’s not working.

          • Reasonable?

            The health care market is failing because consumers are not making price based choices, but we do it in every other sphere.

            It’s now that we have the data and intrastructure to call the bluff of pseudomarket advoccates.

        • CircusMcGurkus

          Seriously? You want people who have NO IDEA what is wrong with them to be “activists”? I am a professional in another field, my clients depend on me to be honest and forthright with them, to put them first. And I do. Doctors cannot because the insurance companies dictate what they can bill for and hospitals mandate that they be able to bill for every minute. Costs will go down when we REMOVE administrators and insurance companies and socialize medicine like every single other first world nation has done.

          You could not be more wrong about how the system is broken. Why can’t hospitals collaborate and not compete for patients. Nothing is more repulsive than a non-profit hospital advertising its services for patients. It is truly repulsive. MA has the highest cost and worst delivery of services. It is not a reflection on the “quality” of doctors but rather the inanity of the hospitals-insurance companies.

  • http://www.facebook.com/futo.buddy Futo Buddy

    looks like there were no non-essential administrative positions. there is an app for math tutoring and in a decade or less we will see the majority of public schools being online schools

  • CircusMcGurkus

    People are afraid of words because they do not understand them. Socialized education led to these great educators sparking children to pursue new ideas. Yet, people are steadfast in their support of a private insurance industry that provides zero services or care to anyone.

    It seems inconceivable to me how anyone could be opposed to socialized medicine. It would be cheaper and create more opportunities for everything from broad thinkers to prepare our kids to entrepreneurs who feel stuck in their jobs because of the cost of medical insurance to ACTUAL medical care when people need it instead of fat cats thriving on the potential for someone requiring services at some point in the unidentified future.