LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Mike Beebe on Monday announced a one-month delay in the start of when teachers can begin signing up for health insurance as lawmakers weigh options to address soaring premiums.
The start of the sign-up period was pushed back from Oct. 1 to Nov. 1.
"The gives some more breathing room as we work with the General Assembly, the superintendents, teachers groups, public school employee groups with specifics to see if any consensus can be achieved to address the rate hikes that have been announced," Beebe said during a news conference at the state Capitol.
Beebe has said he will not call a special session to address the problem unless an agreement is reached beforehand. He told reporters Monday it was too early to say whether lawmakers could come to an agreement, but he said if one can be reached he would call a special session sooner rather than later.
In August, the state Employee Benefits Board voted to raise health insurance premiums for teachers and other school personnel by nearly 50 percent in some cases on Jan. 1.
Although the insurance sign-up period has been moved back a month, Beebe said Monday the Employee Benefits Division has told him that it needs to have some direction by Oct. 15 to begin printing insurance application materials.
State employees can begin signing up for their insurance on Oct. 1 as usual, the governor said.
"This gives another month … for (teachers) where they are not forced to make a decision to keep it or not keep it," he said.
Beebe met with school superintendents for about 90 minutes Monday, then met with 20-25 legislators, discussing options on how to keep the teacher premiums from skyrocketing. State agency heads also attended the meetings and discuss several options, the governor said.
Beebe declined to discuss specifics, but he said a number of options have been discussed, including a slight increase in teacher premiums coupled with a slight reduction in benefits. Using one-time money from the state’s $300 million surplus also was mentioned, he said.
Earlier this month, Bob Alexander, director of the Employee Benefits Division, said it would take $53 million in new money to avoid the projected increases and keep premium rates at current levels next year.
Beebe said he would call a special session to address the issue only after lawmakers can come to an agreement on a long-term solution.
"Whatever solution is going to hurt somebody and probably all of us in equal shares in terms of costing money, or sacrifice, or all of the above," Beebe said.
Several lawmakers briefed by the governor Monday declined to discuss specifics, but said they anticipate a special session.
"I think a basic framework is starting to emerge," said Rep. James R. McLean, D-Batesville.
"There were a number of things we talked about … to see if there was a willingness to move forward," said Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy. "I think it was all very positive … you know, everyone wants to have a resolution on this issues and I think there will be sharing responsibility between the state, and the superintendents and the teachers, and we’re just trying to figure out specifics right now."