Schools might extend plan

Smith suggests adding year to contract with health care provider

Response to union grievance

Plan to switch firms met with workers' complaints

Anne Arundel

September 14, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

The superintendent of Anne Arundel County schools has recommended extending a contract with one of its health care plans to allow time to resolve a grievance filed last month by the teachers union over a proposal to change the company administering the plan.

"We just need more time to get the various issues resolved on this," said Superintendent Eric J. Smith.

At their meeting tomorrow, school board members will consider whether to negotiate a one-year contract with CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, the administrator of its "preferred provider" plan, which nearly half of the school system's more than 10,000 employees use.

System officials did not know how much such an extension would cost.

In July, Smith recommended a five-year, $15.6 million contract with Minnesota-based United Healthcare for preferred provider services. School system administrators said the agreement, if approved by the school board, would have taken effect in January and saved more than $13 million over five years.

However, at a news conference yesterday, union representatives for teachers, principals, secretaries, bus drivers and other employees of Anne Arundel schools said they would pursue legal action if the school board approved the United Healthcare proposal without negotiating the change.

"It's an illegal disregard of our contract," said Sheila Finlayson, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County.

The school system and teachers union have agreed to use an outside arbitrator to resolve the grievance. But Smith said that employees need to register for their health care plan before the end of the calendar year, when the current contract with CareFirst will expire.

Union representatives said that members are concerned about the possibility of being forced to change physicians. Some were concerned about access to specialists, particularly obstetrician-gynecologists, Finlayson said yesterday.

In a letter sent to school system employees last week, Smith stated that employees would still be covered for visits to their current physicians over the five years of the contract, even if those doctors are not part of the new network. He also wrote that projected savings could be "devoted to employee salaries and programs for children."

Union officials said at their news conference yesterday that they want those promises included in the language of their contracts. The school system and unions would have to agree to reopen negotiations.

Over the summer, employees represented by unions agreed to pay an additional 2 percent of their health care premium costs. They accepted the change with the understanding that CareFirst would be the provider, said union leaders.

"If the board's going to be making considerable money on this, they don't need the employees' 2 percent," Finlayson said.

Smith said that in exchange for higher premium payments, the teachers union received a $250 increase in the salary scales starting in January.

He said the union leaders' objection to the change in health care administrators is an attempt to force discussion of "agency fees" -- the fees that all employees represented by the union pay to that organization. Only members pay union dues although the unions represent all employees in a particular job class.

Union representatives said they would like to negotiate about agency fees -- the school board did not discuss the topic during the recent contract bargaining process -- but would be willing to restrict negotiations to health care and salaries.

The four unions have called for their members to rally tomorrow before the school board meeting, which will be held at the system's headquarters in Annapolis.

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