LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas teachers and other public school employees pay a premium for health insurance already, so when Kristen Alford learned that rates were set to rise by nearly 50 percent come Jan. 1, her mind started racing.

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas teachers and other public school employees pay a premium for health insurance already, so when Kristen Alford learned that rates were set to rise by nearly 50 percent come Jan. 1, her mind started racing.

"I was looking at a second job or getting out of teaching altogether because I can’t afford it," the business teacher at Lead Hill High School in Boone County said. "If nothing is done, my insurance will be $1,500 a month. It’s now $1,000."

Alford has a masters degree and is in her fourth year of teaching in the district. She is married and has two young children. She said about a third of her salary currently pays for health insurance under what is called the Gold Plan, which covers her entire family.

"The cost of that is ridiculous already," she said.

To compound the Alfords’ financial crunch, when the school district reduced some staff to meet budget constraints, one of the personnel let go was her husband, who had been working as a non-certified music teacher in the school district until he gets his teaching license.

"He’s subbing at the school now, so it’s just my income. It’s definitely hard on my family," and paying much more for health insurance would make things worse, Alford said.

She welcomed news last week that Gov. Mike Beebe and legislative leaders have tentatively agreed on a plan to hold next year’s increase to about 10 percent and restructure the insurance system to limit increases in future years.

"I think we pay too much already, but I’m excited by it, because I think going up just $100 is a lot better than $500," she said.

On Friday, legislative leaders circulated a package of draft proposals they hoped would meet Beebe’s requirement for short- and long-term solutions. They planned to work through the weekend to build consensus among legislators for both approaches that Beebe has said would be necessary before he would call a special session to address the problem.

School employees’ health insurance rates have been rising for several years because of a lack of funding from the state and local school districts, according to Bob Alexander, director of the state Employee Benefits Division. Also, a $10 million catastrophic claims fund was wiped out by five claims in 2012 and 2013 that each totaled more than $1 million.

In September, Alexander told a legislative committee it would take $53 million in new money to keep premium rates at current levels next year.

Under the proposals circulated Friday, $43 million from the state budget surplus would be used this year to limit the increase in premiums to 10 percent in January.

In future years, the Legislature would direct $36 million to school employees’ health insurance plans. That would include $10 million from general revenue, $16 million from the school facilities program and $10 million from state funding for professional development.

About $18 million would be passed on to school employees in the form of premiums, though that amount could be reduced as a result of reforms to be recommended by a task force that would review the entire system. The task force would be required to submit recommendations to the Legislature by June 30.

Greater cost sharing and incentives to put money into health savings accounts likely would be among the reforms, said Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

One proposal also would require deductibles for all insurance plans, but the economic impact of that change has not yet been estimated, Key said.

Legislators cautioned that consensus on the long-term proposals would be difficult, some saying they already were receiving calls from constituents who don’t like the idea of using state funds to help just teachers. Also, some school districts worried about being required to contribute more to teachers and other school employees’ health insurance.

Timing is critical in the search for solutions.

Last month, Beebe announced a one-month delay of the date when teachers can begin signing up for health insurance as lawmakers weighed options to address rising premiums. The start of the sign-up period was pushed back from Oct. 1 to Nov. 1.

At the time, the governor said the state Employee Benefits Division had informed him it needed some direction by Tuesday to begin printing insurance application materials.

Rep. Bobby Pierce, D-Sheridan, said late last week he was not sure consensus on a long-term solution could be reached in such a short period of time. Any significant resistance could delay prospects for a quick resolution, he said.

After meeting with legislative leaders early last week, Beebe said he was "still kind of holding to the Oct. 15 deadline."

He said the Employee Benefits Division could begin preparing its materials to include the short-term option that would hold the health insurance premiums to a 10 percent increase.

"But if something falls apart on the follow-up stream and I can’t call a (special) session, even for that $43 million, then (the Benefits Division) would have to back up and have a new enrollment period with going back to the old rates," he said.

Legislative leaders appeared optimistic by week’s end that backtracking would not be necessary.

"The proposals that we’ve outlined meet what the governor set forward when he said that before you call a special session we need to see short-term and long-term ways of funding," Key said Friday.

Rep. James McLean, D-Batesville, chairman of the House education panel, said lawmakers should know by Monday or Tuesday whether there is enough support for the proposals for Beebe to call a special session, and when the session would be held. He said he would not be surprised if Beebe summoned lawmakers to the Capitol for a special session by the end of the month.

Alford said she is glad lawmakers are working on a solution and wishes teachers didn’t have to worry about whether they could afford to stay in their chosen profession.

"I just want teaching to get back to the basics and how it use to be. People use to want to be teachers and now it is as if we’re encouraging students not to become teachers, and that’s sad," she said.