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La Joya school board rejects higher health insurance premiums, keeps free plan for employees

This article originally appeared in the Friday Aug. 2, 2019 issue of the Progress Times.

The La Joya school board on Wednesday rejected a proposal to increase health insurance premiums — and end the free, basic health insurance plan for employees.

Trustees rejected a proposal to increase the monthly premium for all employee health insurance plans by $40 per month.

LJISD LogoMany district employees, who enjoy a basic health insurance plan without a monthly premium, opposed the increase. Trustees also became concerned the $40 monthly premium would hurt low-wage workers.

“We must invest in those who invest in our students,” said school board Trustee Oscar “Coach” Salinas, who made the motion to reject higher premiums. “Not only just the pay, but we also need to invest in good health care for them and their families.”

Trustees frequently tout the benefits offered by the La Joya Independent School District, which include a basic health insurance plan without a monthly premium.

Employees who select the “high” plan or add family members must pay a premium.

The district, however, struggles with health care costs.

During the 2017-2018 fiscal year, the district health insurance fund had nearly $29.5 million in revenue but about $30.4 million in expenses, according to information reviewed by the school board. To pay the difference, the district must pull money from the general fund.

Concerned about the red ink, Assistant Superintendent Joel Treviño suggested the district increase health insurance premiums by $40 per month.

If half of the approximately 4,200 people who work for the district paid an additional $40 every month, the health insurance fund would receive a $1 million boost.

“I understand where Mr. Treviño was coming from,” said Mauro Sierra III, a history teacher at La Joya Early College High School who serves as the campus representative for the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

Many employees simply can’t afford to pay health insurance premiums, Sierra said, especially low-wage workers.

“The unfortunate reality is we have many employees who for one reason or another do not have the means to purchase the insurance,” Sierra said.

Treviño presented the proposal on July 24, when the board held a budget workshop.

Employees weren’t happy about higher premiums, said J.J. Luna, an American Federation of Teachers representative who attended the workshop and the meeting on Wednesday.

“A lot of them are saying: ‘They’re giving us a small raise, and it’s going to go all into the insurance,” Luna said.

When the proposal landed on the school board agenda Wednesday, trustees quickly rejected the idea.

Salinas motioned to deny the request for higher premiums. Trustee Espie Ochoa seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.

“We felt that that was a little bit too much,” said Trustee Alex Cantu. “So we said ‘You know what, we’ll just deny it.’”

The district may explore other ways to reduce employee health insurance costs. Trustees approved an unspecified change to how the district clinic handles prescriptions that may save $600,000 annually.

“Happy employees equals a happy district,” Cantu said. “So, you know what, it’s all for them.”

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