MELBA, Idaho — Gov. Brad Little hit the road Tuesday to sign House Bill 443, which will fund Idaho K-12 school district's access to the state's medical and dental group health insurance plans.
The governor's signature received a mass of applause by Melba Elementary School students and staff — where Little and backers of the bill kicked off the roadshow.
Through the legislation, state lawmakers will create the public school health insurance participation fund — a dedicated account filled with the one-time amount school districts need to join the state's plans. According to bill sponsors, the one-time amount is estimated at $75.5 million.
On Tuesday, Little said the legislation highlights how important it is to take care of Idaho's school staff.
"We want to send the signal that we want people to stay in education," he said. "It's been very challenging the last two years, and we need to do all we can to get (teaching staff) to stay."
Amy Olsen, a music teacher at Melba Elementary School, said school staff has been working around the clock to make sure students learn in a safe and happy environment. She said watching the governor sign HB 443 showed that the work of Idaho's educators isn't going unnoticed.
"I feel like when our work is acknowledged through help with our budgeting and with salary increases, it really says, 'OK, we get what you do, and we appreciate all that you do," she said.
Signing the bill in Melba was symbolic for Little, who said Idaho's rural districts often struggle to find and pay for competitive health insurance plans. Which, the governor said, can influence some educators to leave the profession.
"There's staff in some districts that opt for insurance and aren't getting paid enough to afford it. They were basically working for free just to get insurance. This will help with that problem," Little said. "Bus driver, kitchen help, all of them will be beneficiaries of this insurance support from the state."
Legislators have attempted to address teacher health insurance for more than a decade. Schools are permitted to opt into the State Health Insurance Plan — administered by Blue Cross of Idaho — but often do not because of the cost.
Little said that what allowed the state to pass the teacher health insurance legislation this year was Idaho's record budget surplus. But there is still work to be done, as the law is part of a larger initiative that includes two budget bills expected to be introduced later in the session.
The two subsequent bills are:
- Appropriate $75.5 million into the dedicated insurance fund from the state's general fund
- Establish an ongoing $105 million appropriation to assist in covering employee health insurance costs, which would increase the $8,400 schools get per employee to pay private health insurance costs to $12,500
School districts have until June 2024 to decide whether they will stay with their private providers or use the state funding.
The bill also removes leadership premiums, which provides bonuses to teachers who take on additional tasks.
Little's proposed 2022 state budget includes a 10% increase in pay for Idaho teachers, COVID-19 related bonuses, and investments in literacy programs. All these measures, Little said, are in hopes of retaining and attracting more educators in Idaho.
Olsen has taught in Idaho for about eight years, and she believes the recent moves by the legislature to support teachers are a sign that lawmakers are willing to work with schools to provide better education.
"The students are our first priority, and we want to make sure that the best education happens here in Idaho," Olsen said. "And we can do that through the funding through the state and the support of our legislature."