SARANAC LAKE - The school board here has dropped a plan to force its retirees to switch to a less costly health insurance plan. Instead, the board hopes they'll do so voluntarily.
Three resolutions approving the change from the current Classic Blue Indemnity Plan to the Blue PPO-J plan, both of which are offered by Excellus Blue Cross Blue Shield, were on the board's agenda for consideration Wednesday night. The switch would have applied to retired members of the Saranac Lake Teachers Association, Civil Service Employees Association Unit Local 100 and the Saranac Lake Administrators Association.
Dozens of retired school employees showed up for Wednesday's meeting, held in the Saranac Lake High School auditorium instead of at the usual site - the Petrova School library - because school officials expected the large turnout.
Retired Saranac Lake school teacher Ed McCarthy, right, speaks to the district’s board of education Wednesday after the board backed off on a plan to switch its retirees to a cheaper health insurance plan.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
Before the meeting got underway, however, school board President Debra Lennon announced that the three resolutions would be removed from the agenda.
"After careful and thoughtful consideration, the board believes we're on solid ground in making the decision to move retirees to PPO-J," Lennon said. "However, we've heard your concerns and would like to come to a solution in a more collaborative way."
School officials have said the change to the PPO-J plan would save the district a significant amount of money on what's become its biggest expense. Employee health insurance costs represent about 20 percent, or $5.5 million, of the district's total $28 million budget. The PPO-J plan is cheaper for the district, by about $2,600 for a family policy and about $1,000 for an individual policy.
Lennon asked the retirees to consider switching to PPO-J voluntarily.
"As everyone knows, health care costs remain an ongoing issue," Lennon said. "Moving to PPO-J will save the district money now and in the future, and many times (it) will also save retirees' money as well. Future economic situations could change the timeline for a potential change, but at this moment we are removing these resolutions and asking for your input."
All of the district's active Civil Service Employees Association workers were switched to the PPO-J plan as part of their most recent contract with the district. Current school district administrators and supervisors were given the option of changing to the less expensive plan, and all of them have now done so, school officials said Wednesday.
Current teachers, under their most recent contract, were also given the option of switching to the PPO-J plan. (Editor's note: The prior sentence has been corrected.) So far, about 50 have done so. Although the SLTA doesn't represent retirees, they were under the impression that they would be given the same choice, which is why many retirees were upset when they learned the district said it would force them to switch plans. Some retirees have said they don't like the PPO-J plan because it will cost them more out of pocket and requires pre-approval for certain medical procedures.
Ed McCarthy, a retired teacher, thanked the school board Wednesday for backing off on the switch.
"I consider it quite an about-face, and I'm happy that you've done that," he said.
McCarthy asked if there's a chance the board could resurrect the plan before its current employee contracts expire. He said the proposed change had been "sprung" on the retirees, and he worried the same could happen again.
Lennon said the board is keeping the option open and promised to keep the retirees in the loop. The district could bring it up again if it's faced with making budget cuts that could harm students, she said.
"There's no guarantees," Lennon said. "We didn't do it to be malicious or mean. We did it because we really do want to find ways to save our taxpayers money and to preserve the district and programs for students. ... We're hoping you'll consider changing (plans) tomorrrow. I'm hoping you won't wait till you're being forced."
SLTA Co-President Don Carlisto, a middle school teacher, thanked the school board for "acting prudently" and "reinforcing your commitment to partner and collaborate with the Saranac Lake Teachers Association as we try to tackle some of these issues going forward."
Carlisto told the Enterprise outside the meeting that the SLTA and the New York State United Teachers union were prepared to mount a legal challenge against the district if it moved forward with the change.
The school board met in executive session before the meeting with its attorney. Lennon said after the meeting that the board felt it was "in good legal standing" if it had approved the switch.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.