BOISE, Idaho — Legislation that would fund Idaho K-12 teachers’ access to the state’s medical and dental group health insurance plans won near-unanimous approval from Senate lawmakers on Thursday in a 32-3 vote.
With Senate approval, the bill now heads to Gov. Brad Little, who has expressed support for the legislation on multiple occasions, for approval.
House Bill 443 creates the public school health insurance participation fund – a dedicated account filled with the one-time amount school districts need to join the state's plan. According to bill sponsors, the one-time amount is estimated at $75.5 million.
During Thursday's debate, eight lawmakers from both parties gave the legislation high praise. Senators Regina Bayer, R-Meridian, Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, and Christy Zito, R-Hammett, were the only opposing votes.
Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said she had received several emails from school staff who struggle to afford health insurance on their salary. Ward-Engelking also shared that her daughter, a former teacher in Homedale, couldn't afford to cover her whole family under the school's health insurance plan.
"It was $800 to cover her children, but if she'd had to cover her husband too, it would have been $1500 a month," the legislator said. "That's almost impossible on a teacher's salary, especially a beginning teacher."
Sen. Steven Thayne, R-Emmett, believes HB 443 could be the most effective legislation Idaho has passed to boost teacher take-home pay.
"We've increased teacher pay quite a few times over the last four to five years," he said. "However, much of that teacher pay has been sucked up in increasing health insurance costs. So they haven't felt as much benefit from the investment we made."
Following the vote, Idaho Education Association President Layne McInelly told Idaho News 6 that teaching staff has asked the state to help with health insurance for years.
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.
McInelly described HB 443 are "huge" for Idaho educators.
"We have educators, paraprofessionals especially, who work solely for health insurance, and at the end of the month, they have to write a check back to the district to pay for some of their health insurance," he said. "So, this is going to be a drastic change to their life."
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.
On Thursday, Sen. Jim Woodward, R-Sagle, said the bill is part of a three-part initiative to improve health care benefits for public school employees.
The remaining two components include:
- An ongoing funding appropriation of approximately $105 million to increase funding for school employees’ health insurance costs from $8,400 to $12,500
- A one-time funding appropriation of $75 million
Little's proposed 2022 state budget also includes $105 million in general fund dollars to help school districts cover the cost of employee health insurance. The appropriation would increase the $8,400 schools get per employee to $12,500, the equivalent to what the state pays for its employees for health insurance.