When brutal cost increases and benefit reductions in the state retired teachers’ health-care plan awakened a “sleeping giant,” legislators took notice

TRS-Care bolstered just before the House’s dramatic sine die

Chris Ardis for Texas AFTI retired in May of 2013 after a 29-year teaching career, one in Brownsville ISD and 28 in McAllen ISD.  Before I retired, I looked carefully at the three Teacher Retirement System health-care options (TRS-Care)–tiers 1, 2, and 3.  I chose the one with the best benefits, TRS-Care-3, because the “high plan” served me well while teaching.  I figured the $295 into my retirement budget, and everything was going great…until Gov. Greg Abbott convened the 85th Texas Legislature in January.

Although I have begun to dread every legislative session, the 85th Legislature proved to be particularly brutal to retired teachers in Texas and to our public education system.

Like many of my fellow retired teachers across the state, I didn’t see it coming.  Then I received an email from the Texas Retired Teachers Association.  The email focused on the dire need for both the House and the Senate to address TRS-Care to spare it from potential collapse.  TRS-Care, we learned, was facing a shortfall exceeding $1 billion.  These are the words from that email that terrified me:

… TRS speculates that without legislative action the plan will have unaffordable premiums…The premiums are expected to exceed $1,200 to $1,500 per month, and many retirees would rush to the available free option [Tier 1], cutting program’s revenue drastically. This forced shift and loss of revenue would send TRS-Care into a death spiral, and the program would likely die in the coming biennium.

Death spiral?  I sat, stunned.  I would not be able to keep my insurance if I had to pay $1,200 a month, and I know retired public education employees across the state reading that email had to be equally stunned.  And, I thought, I’m a retired teacher.  Imagine what my former coworkers whose salaries were far less than a teacher’s must be feeling.

Texas AFT worked diligently to push for more money in proposed bills to close the gap in funding needed.  Ultimately, the House version of plans for additional funding (HB 3976) passed near the end of the session, and the TRS board met June 2 to establish new plan premiums and rules. Since the legislation provided nowhere near enough money to close the $1 billion gap, the TRS board was forced to increase premiums and reduce benefits. The end result devastated active and retired teachers and other public school employees across the state.

I, and fellow under-65 retirees, no longer have the options of choosing between tiers 1, 2, and 3.  Rather, beginning January 1, 2018, we will all be placed into one “high deductible plan.”  As a result of HB 3976, plans were for our deductible to increase from the current $400 to $3,000, and maximum out-of-pocket would increase from $4,900 to $7,150.  Except for a list of generic, standard maintenance drugs, all other prescriptions would fall under our deductible with no co-pay until that deductible is reached, beginning September 1, 2017.  That list of drugs remains a mystery. Within four years, the $295 monthly premium I worked into my retirement budget would increase to $370.

Retirees over 65 and eligible for Medicare would all be moved to a TRS Medicare Advantage Plan administered by Humana, which is considered the equivalent of the TRS-Care Medicare Advantage 2 plan.  Over-65 retirees currently in the TRS-Care Medicare Advantage 3 plan would see an obvious reduction in benefits. (This is a simplified look at the impacts, and you can get all the details here.)

Unfortunately, many retirees across the state appeared to be asleep throughout this process, and news agencies across the state did little or nothing to inform retirees and the general public about the impending health-care and financial crisis.

Once the impacts were understood, though, the backlash was fast and fierce.  Retired teachers, along with other retired and active public school employees from across the state, heeded the call to action, making countless calls and sending thousands of emails to Texas legislators expressing our frustration, our fear, and our fury about the legislators’ treatment of public school employees.  Retirees began confronting legislators in their home districts as well.  Rallies were held at the Capitol.  One apropos hashtag I have seen on social media to describe this reaction is #thesleepinggiantisawake.

The governor, lieutenant governor, and legislators heard this backlash loudly and clearly, resulting in Gov. Abbott calling for TRS-Care to be addressed during the special session.  I couldn’t help but think this is proof that if teachers and all public school active and retired employees stay engaged–in the voting booth and through phone calls, emails, and social media–we could turn the tide of the injustices we have seen during the legislative session.

Tuesday, August 15, two days before the scheduled end of the special session, we saw the result of the giant awakening.  In a surprise move, the Senate added TRS-Care to a school finance bill (HB 21), pumping an additional $212 million into the retiree health-care system. Tuesday, the House reluctantly passed the bill 94-46.   Several members of the House spoke angrily about the Senate’s refusal to use the Economic Stabilization Fund (also known as the Rainy Day Fund), as the House had proposed, instead funding the $212 million by deferring payments to Managed Care Organizations.

They also expressed disdain for the Senate for failing to back a House plan in the original bill to pump $1.8 billion more into public education, which would have gone a long way to not only

Texas AFT rallied members behind additional TRS-Care funding during the special session
Texas AFT rallied members behind additional TRS-Care funding during the special session

substantially increasing per-pupil funding for our students, but also providing districts more money to provide an increase in active teachers’ salaries and stave off rising health-insurance premiums. The Senate’s move to put retiree health-care funding in the school finance bill and its refusal to budge on approving the House funding for schools forced the House into abandoning its plans for significant funding. Shortly after the passage of HB 21, in dramatic fashion, the House voted to end the special session a day early by proclaiming, “Sine die!”  This forced the Senate to do the same a few hours later.

HB 21 reduces the deductible for under-65 retirees from $3,000 to $1,500, still $1,100 more than our current deductible.  It also reduces our maximum out-of-pocket and slightly reduces premiums for all retirees who cover their spouses, one or more children, or the entire family, and retirees with a disabled child.

This is no time for the giant to go back to sleep.  After all, the backlash from the sleeping giant awakening turned the tide.  Though we have no choice but to live with what the Texas Legislature has done for now, we can choose to stay engaged and to get out the vote.  Fee, Fie, Fo, Fum.  Sleep no more, Giants!

Chris Ardis retired in May of 2013 following a 29-year teaching career. She is a retiree member of McAllen AFT.  Chris writes a weekly education column for the Valley Town Crier, edits Welcome Home Winter Texan, helps companies with business communications and social media, and works as a sales coordinator for Tony Roma’s and Macaroni Grill in McAllen. Chris can be reached at cardis1022@aol.com.