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Legislator Objects To Taking Insurance From Part-Time School Employees

LITTLE ROCK — A state senator said Thursday she is concerned that a proposal to drop part-time public school employees from health insurance plans may leave some people without options for coverage and cause schools to lose valuable employees.

The Legislature is scheduled to convene for a special session next week during which it is expected to make cost-saving changes to the public school employees’ health insurance system that a task force recommended, including making part-time employees ineligible. That change is expected to affect about 4,000 employees.

During a meeting Thursday of the House and Senate committees on public health, welfare and labor, Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, asked what options exist for part-time school employees if their household income makes them ineligible for the private option or for federal subsidies to buy insurance though the federally facilitated insurance marketplace.

The private option used federal Medicaid money to subsidize private health insurance for people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $33,000 for a family of four. By the end of May, 187,000 Arkansans had been found eligible for the program and 172,000 has completed enrollment, according to the state Department of Human Services.

Subsidies in the form of federal tax credits are available to help people buy insurance through the marketplaces if their income level is no more than 400 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $94,000 for a family of four.

“In my district we have preachers who drive buses for the health insurance but make too much money (as a family) to be considered,” Chesterfield said. “What do I tell them about the other options?”

“They can go to the marketplace,” said Cynthia Crone, deputy commissioner of the state Insurance Department’s Arkansas Health Connector Division. “They just may not get subsidies.”

In Arkansas, the average monthly cost to consumers for a silver plan through the marketplace is $393 without subsidies and $83 with subsidies, Crone said.

Chesterfield said after the meeting she plans to vote against the legislation that would make part-time school employees ineligible for the state insurance plan.

“In order to become a bus driver, you’ve got to have the (commercial driver’s license), you’ve got to have all the stuff that goes with that. I don’t want us to lose valuable employees,” she said.

Chesterfield said some may not be able to afford to replace their insurance, and people who go from the state insurance plan to the private option will lose that insurance if the Legislature votes next year to end the program, which some Republican legislators are advocating.

“I had thought at one time we were going to say that if the private option goes away next year, that the individuals affected would be able to go back and regain their health insurance,” she said. “That’s not part of the deal. They’re just going to be out there.”

State Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, one of the architects of the private option and the Senate president pro tem-designate, said Thursday, “I know there’s been some discussion by Sen. Chesterfield and others that there needed to be some type of safeguard in place.”

But he added, “These are the task force recommendations. That’s what we’re moving forward with. If there need to be some alterations in the future, I would personally be willing to make those if things change course in other areas, but that would a question up to the entire body.”

Dismang also noted that private-sector employers typically do not offer insurance to part-time employees.

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