Amid all the current changes in American and Arkansas health care, we are also working to address the rising costs that have helped create a serious problem for an important segment of our society. In this case, the issue has been brought into focus by the plight of the Public School Employee Plan, which provides insurance for teachers and other school-district employees.
The structure of the Plan has been a concern for many years, since only about half of those eligible for the coverage were enrolled. The large majority of those enrollees opted for Gold-level coverage, which helped keep their out-of-pocket costs down but is the most costly and most heavily utilized plan. This past December, in a special committee meeting, the Arkansas General Assembly was again warned of the financial crisis facing the Plan. During this winter's most recent legislative session, I requested an $8,000,000 allocation that prevented a mid-year rate increase for 2013.
After rates were announced for 2014 last month, teachers and other school employees found themselves looking at premium increases of up to 50 percent. Worried about their ability to keep their insurance and still make ends meet, these dedicated Arkansans have brought their concerns to my office and to the General Assembly.
At a hearing this past week, lawmakers began suggesting that I call a special session to address the spike in insurance rates, an idea I do not oppose. However, I will call lawmakers back to Little Rock only if they reach a majority consensus on solutions for both the short-term funding problems and long-term systemic issues with the Public School Employee Plan. My philosophy is that special sessions, which are paid for by taxpayers, are for taking action on solutions, not trying to devise solutions.
I believe that using one-time money to meet ongoing costs should take place only when that funding is a bridge to more financially stable footing. This is why I feel that a strong framework for long-term sustainability must be agreed upon before I call a special session. I will be sharing numerous ideas with legislators to see if we can gather a majority consensus to resolve this matter. Nearly all possible solutions will require the General Assembly to find additional money for the Plan.
It will cost an estimated $54 million to keep public-school employee insurance rates at their current level. Lawmakers must decide how much additional taxpayer money they would dedicate to alleviate part or all of that rate increase. There is also the issue of monthly contributions made by school districts. A new law taking effect next year increases the minimum district contribution from $131 to $150 per month, but any additional cost-sharing is strictly a local decision for superintendents and school boards to determine.
For six-and-a-half years as Governor, I have worked to make education Arkansas's top priority. We have now increased funding to our school districts every year for a decade. Teachers and other public-school employees are vitally important to reaching our educational goals. Our current challenge is finding insurance solutions that are fair both to them and to taxpayers. I look forward to working with all involved parties to make sure that we get this right and set the stage for continued educational advancements.