‘Don’t change insurer,’ teachers say

1019_4230457KEARNY – 

Lincoln Middle School teacher April Amenta is dreading a possible switch in her health care coverage because she fears having to spend a lot more for doctors out of the network.

“I can’t afford to live in this town if you make this decision,” Amenta told her employers last Monday.

Valerie Verdi, a 30-year Kearny teacher, swears by current health care provider Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield. But for the company’s extensive coverage for serious medical issues she dealt with, “I would’ve lost my house.”

And, she said, even though “my paycheck has gone backwards” due to the cost of employee health contributions, Verdi feels the increasing cost of care is worth it “to keep us healthy. We need our board [of education] to support us so we can continue to do our best for the children.”

And a 23-year Kearny High teacher who spent 38 days on antibiotics before being diagnosed with auto-immune disease said that since then, “I lost almost no time at work and am now in remission,” thanks to care that was covered by Horizon. And when her son had an emergency appendectomy while he was away in college, Horizon took care of everything, she added. “I beg you to look after our health,” she pleaded.

‘I can’t afford to live in this town if you make this decision.’  — April Amenta, Lincoln Middle School teacher 

These and many other Kearny public school teachers are adamant about sticking with their current health care insurer but their bosses say they can save money by going with a competitor.

At last Monday’s Board of Education meeting, a steady stream of teachers, led by Marcy Fisher, president of the Kearny Education Association, stepped up to the microphone to praise Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, the current contractor, and denounce Aetna, its rival.

Aetna sales agent Rick Rispoli, who was reportedly invited to the meeting by Brown & Brown, the BOE’s insurance broker, gamely sought to defend his firm against the onslaught of criticism, saying that area hospitals currently used by KEA members are “all in the [Aetna] network,” as are many doctors. “Aetna is a topline company,” he said.

Facing a packed house of teachers in the Lincoln School auditorium, BOE Finance Committee chair Samantha Paris said that while the board was contemplating switching its employee health care carrier, “it’s not a done deal.”

“This is not something we take lightly,” she said, adding that the board wanted to hear what teachers had to say before making a decision against a backdrop of ongoing negotiations toward a new labor contract with the KEA, whose old contract expired in 2014.

Each year, the board must review the contract it has with its employee health care insurer and either renew it or bring in someone else. And for the next school year, the board’s insurance experts are projecting a 27% jump in current costs if it stays with Horizon Blue versus an 18% hike if it goes with Aetna, Paris said.

‘This is not something we take lightly.’  — Samantha Paris, Kearny Board of Education member 

According to figures furnished by BOE business administrator Michael DeVita, for the 2014-15 school year, the district is paying about $11.2 million to Horizon Blue to provide coverage to 556 employees. It also pays $472,250 to 94 employees who “opt out” of the plan, typically because they are already covered under another plan. A brokerage fee is built into the premiums paid by the board, DeVita said. The district’s overall 2014-15 budget is about $79 million. (Brown & Brown receives a 1% commission from Horizon Blue.)

DeVita said the BOE hasn’t contracted with New Jersey Health Benefits because it does not offer a “traditional plan,” and that omission makes it ineligible because it would not provide employees with health benefits that are equal to or better than the existing plan.

Employees covered by the plan are required to pay an amount ranging from 1.5% of their base salary to a fixed percentage of the value of their actual health care costs keyed to a formula based on the type of plan and their salary.

“This is something very important to our members,” Fisher told the board. And because KEA members favor the service being provided by the incumbent firm, they have turned out in force to “convince [the board] that we stay with Blue Cross Blue Shield.”

Having gotten feedback from its employees, the BOE is expected to act soon on whether to extend Horizon’s contract or retain Aetna.

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.