• Unions look to Obamacare for health care guidance


    SUBSCRIBER CONTENT: Aug 30, 2013, 5:00am CDT


    Mary Shapiro, Mary Shapiro is a St. Louis freelance writer.


    Though she’s a union member, Yolonda Fortson, a building substitute teacher for the last three years at Farragut Elementary School, is on her own for health insurance.


    A member of the American Federation of Teachers St. Louis Local 420, Fortson is hoping the advent of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, will help make health coverage affordable for her and the 14-year-old son she supports on her own, once enrollment begins Oct. 1.


    Fortson had been what’s called a regular substitute teacher for six years for St. Louis Public Schools. This is her fifth year at Farragut.


    “Three years ago, a building sub position was created throughout the district and I took that position at Farragut,” Fortson said. “The pay is better. A regular sub makes $93 a day, and a building sub makes $115 a day. But I hadn’t realized that this post, like the regular sub, doesn’t have benefits like health insurance or vacation or sick days.”


    Fortson pays for her son’s medical expenses out of pocket through an independent provider.


    “But if I get sick, it’s too bad, which is why I hope Obamacare will help me and my son get the health benefits we need at an affordable price,” Fortson said. “We substitutes are at schools as much as the teachers and other employees who get benefits. I enjoy my job, but I wish I could get benefits, especially since I’ve been a union member for six years.”


    Fortson’s concerns are understood by Mary Armstrong, president of AFT St. Louis Local 420. Her local represents about 3,500 certificated employees, paraprofessionals and clerical employees in the St. Louis Public Schools. The school district is working on complying with ACA mandates now, she said. The district pays the full cost of the medical benefits for most employees, something done in lieu of raises over the last few years, Armstrong said.


    “Our union members all have medical coverage through the district except for some building substitutes,” she said.

    The only change that has gone into effect for her members in regard to ACA provisions is the rebate measure that began a couple of years ago. That called for health insurance providers who spend less than 80 percent of premium costs on medical care to refund the difference to consumers.


    Armstrong said the union local is supportive of the ACA initiative.


    Mary Houlihan, chief operating officer of St. Louis Public Schools, said the district recently completed its requests for proposals with health care providers for next year and built in requirements for the Obamacare plan to be introduced Jan. 1, such as fees and maximum out-of-pocket costs that are incorporated into regulations for next year.


    “We have no concerns for the program kicking in next year, and we feel it will just become part of the landscape for the school district,” she said. “We have a joint benefits committee that our unions sit on and they see the proposals from various providers before any recommendations go to the special administrative board.”


    The Communications Workers of America in St. Louis Local 6300 hasn’t made any changes regarding health insurance due to the upcoming start of Obamacare either, said Ken Bates, vice president. That CWA local covers around 4,000 communications employees in companies including AT&T and Verizon.


    “We bargain for insurance through our members’ various companies and aren’t self-insured,” he said. “The only concern we have is what action companies would try to take in future bargaining efforts because of the start of Obamacare. But, so far, our members have benefited from having children covered up to the age of 26 by the health insurance due to an Obamacare provision that’s already gone into effect.”


    Like the CWA, the St. Louis Police Officers Association doesn’t maintain its own insurance policy, but members get coverage through their employer, said Jeff Roorda, business manager. The association has more than 1,000 members who work for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.


    “As a result of state Proposition A, which recently allowed for city control of the police department, our members have some protections on what kind of insurance we’ll get,” said Roorda, who’s also a Democratic state representative from Jefferson County. “But we’re hopeful Obamacare will result in decreasing premiums for us. Every time we come to the table with the city to negotiate for salary increases, the answer we get is that they spend so much money on health insurance cost increases.”


    Monica Green, manager of compensation and benefits for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, said that in advance of the ACA, the department has made changes to various health plan descriptions and added whatever benefits are supposed to be included under preventive care.


    “We have no concerns about what’s going to happen, as we have no Cadillac plan, so no discrimination is involved,” she said. The ACA calls for a 40 percent excise tax on the value of high-cost “Cadillac” insurance plans above a certain level; in 2018, the threshold is $10,200 for individual coverage and $27,500 for family coverage.


    “We pay for the entire cost of employee coverage, though employees pay for the full cost of dependent coverage,” Green said. “I think the new exchanges will be more expensive than what we already offer.”