By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican
Kevin Darrow, a music teacher at Wood Gormley Elementary School, estimated he spends nearly 14% of his earnings — some $600 per month — on health insurance.
“For a teacher, that’s a lot of money,” he said.
And Darrow said he’s one of the lucky ones because he shares that cost with his spouse. As the cost of living in Santa Fe continues to increase, he noted many of his fellow teachers — often master’s degree-level professionals — have to find roommates or get creative to stretch their earnings.
Figuring out how to pay for health insurance is part of that household budget calculus.
A bill before the Legislature this session is intended ease the burden of high health care costs, specifically for educators. House Bill 102, which would require school districts, charter schools and other educational institutions pay for the first $10,000 of health insurance costs for educators, secured a do-pass recommendation from the House Labor, Veterans’ and Military Affairs Committee in a unanimous vote Tuesday, despite scrutiny from Republican committee members.
Currently, educators pay an average of about $10,000 per year — $3,000 more per year than most public employees — on health care, state Department of Finance and Administration analyst Simon Miller told the committee.
For many educators, that’s just unaffordable, said Lori Ortega, executive director of the state’s branch of the National Education Association.
The bill is designed to fix that problem. If it passes, an average of $4,000 a year in health care costs would shift from educators to their employers, bringing educators to about $1,000 less in health care costs each year than most public employees, Miller said.
“HB 102 will provide affordable, high-quality health care benefits for all educators and eliminate unneeded stress from educators minds by allowing them to focus on their classrooms,” Rep. Raymundo Lara, D-Chamberino, who co-sponsored the bill, said before the committee.
The bill covers all school employees, including classroom teachers, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and custodial staff.
The goal behind HB 102 — to largely eliminate health care premium costs for New Mexico educators — was among the priorities announced in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s second inaugural address in January.
“Taking care of our educators and increasing their overall compensation supports better outcomes and is in the best interest of New Mexico students and families,” Lujan Grisham said of the legislation in a recent news release.
Where would the funding come from to help districts and schools cover these increased costs? While the bill does not include a direct appropriation, the governor’s executive budget recommendation includes $100 million to cover the health insurance premiums.
The bill has support from those who see it as another way to recruit and retain New Mexico teachers and improve student outcomes.
Hiring educators remains one of the primary challenges facing districts across the state, said Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez.
“I think this would go a long way in helping us retain but also recruit individuals into our profession. This allows us to add another incentive [when we] go out out and recruit to bring individuals to the world of education,” Chavez said of the legislation.
Because Santa Fe Public Schools currently pays for educators’ insurance in line with the bill’s requirements — paying for the first $10,000 and 60% of costs beyond that — Chavez said state dollars for employee insurance costs would allow the district to invest funds currently going toward benefits back into the classroom.
Educator recruitment also contributes to better student outcomes, said Interim Public Education Department Secretary Mariana Padilla.
“If we’re really going to address student and student proficiency in this state, we must ensure that we have well-qualified educators in every single classroom,” Padilla said. “This bill will allow us to address those vacancies and to support not only our educators but all school personnel.”
But some committee members questioned the bill’s fairness, raising concerns about decreasing health care costs for educators without doing the same for other public employees.
“How do we pick and choose who gets the benefit of this?” asked Rep. Andrea Reeb, R-Clovis. “To me, it’s not seeming fair across the board for all the different state employees that are in the same situation.”
Miller pointed out the bill actually decreases the unequal health insurance costs between teachers and other public employees, from teachers paying about $3,000 more to about $1,000 less than other public employees
“Yes, [it’s] an inequity. But smaller than the current inequity,” Miller said.
Lara said he’d eventually like to decrease insurance costs for public employees across the board. He agreed to work with Rep. Harlan Vincent, R-Ruidoso Downs, on a bill to accomplish that goal.
Instructors from the University of New Mexico voiced similar concerns. They said they face the same challenges in paying for insurance. Lara responded UNM employees do not qualify for the bill’s insurance cost relief because the university does not procure insurance through the New Mexico Public School Insurance Authority, the agency the bill is designed to address.
The bill, Lara said, is the “first step” in ensuring health insurance is not prohibitively expensive for any public employees. Ultimately, this satisfied the the committee’s Republican contingent, which unanimously signed off on HB 102.