LITTLE ROCK — The chairman of a Senate committee Monday called for a special legislative session to address skyrocketing teacher insurance premiums.
"This plan, if it continues as they’ve been doing, it’s in the proverbial death spiral," Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, told reporters during a break in a meeting of four legislative committees discussing the problem. "It’s going to continue to get worse, it’s going to require a lot of money."
Gov. Mike Beebe’s spokesman said the governor does not want to call a special session until there is an immediate need and an agreed-upon solution.
"There’s a lot more agreement on the first part of that than the second part of that," Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said.
Beebe met with Rapert, chairman of the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, and other lawmakers last week to discuss the problem, and more meetings could occur, DeCample said.
Rapert scheduled Monday’s meeting of the Senate and House education committees and insurance and commerce committees last month after officials learned that health insurance premiums for teachers and other school personnel would go up as much as 50 percent, depending on which plan they choose.
"When you look at teachers that are telling me that 44 percent of their income is going to pay their insurance premiums, I think waiting to January is not an option," Rapert told reporters Monday.
The Legislature’s regular fiscal session is scheduled to convene Feb. 10.
Bob Alexander, director of the state employee benefits division, and Doug Shackelford, deputy director, told lawmakers Monday that the new insurance rates are scheduled to take effect Jan. 1 and that it would take $53 million in new money to avoid the projected increases and keep premium rates at current levels next year.
"We realize at this point that this situation is going to cause a lot of turmoil," Rapert said. "For all of these teachers and their families we simply need to do something right now to handle the situation."
The Legislature this year allocated $8 million in end-of-the-year General Improvement Funds to help prop up the teacher health insurance benefits program after learning that the fund had been depleted in 2010 because of a number of catastrophic claims.
Alexander and Shackelford told lawmakers Monday that the employee benefits board first learned of the possibility of a massive rate hike in June, just weeks after the legislative session ended. The board voted in August to raise the rates.
A short-term fix, Rapert suggested, would be using $53 million of the nearly $300 million government surplus to help keep teacher insurance rates at their current levels while lawmakers work to develop a long-term solution.
"Do I like that? No," he said. "Do I like the fact that (the employee benefits board) waited until they’ve released the rates to the teachers to tell us that there is a problem and a 48 percent increase? No I don’t like that. We have the ability to fix the short-term situation and provide the relief. I think that’s what we should do.
"If we can take special measures during the session to provide funding for Big River Steele in northeast Arkansas, then we ought to be able to take the time to make sure that teachers can survive."
The Legislature in April authorized a package of incentives, including a $125 million bond issue, to bring a $1.1 billion steel mill to Mississippi County.
Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said he expects the legislative panels to meet several more times before an agreement on teacher insurance premiums can be reached.
"Right now any idea is on the table," Key said. "I don’t think anybody is ruling anything out, whether it be restructuring the plans or giving districts the opportunity to shop for their own."
During Monday’s meeting, officials with the Bureau of Legislative Research discussed the history of the rising teacher insurance rates and Jerry Noble, superintendent of the Greene County Tech School District, told of how the rising rates would hurt the teachers in his district.
More than 100 people, many of them teachers in the Greene County Tech district, attended Monday’s meeting.