WASHINGTON – While President Obama was announcing changes to the Affordable Care Act on Thursday, Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) was holding a panel to explore another potential weakness of the law.
Kline said the healthcare law is a prime example of a federal policy unrelated to education that can burden classrooms.
“At a time when we need to recruit the best teachers, train today’s workers for the jobs of the future and school leaders are trying to do more with less, imposing a fundamentally flawed and costly law on our schools is not in the best interests of teachers, parents, taxpayers or students,” Kline said.
College and public schools officials, which rely on hourly staff to fill positions such as support staff and teaching aides, told lawmakers they might resort to more part-time staff to avoid requirement or penalties under the healthcare law.
“We are already in deep discussions about having to cut the teaching loads for our adjunct, part-time teaching positions,” said Thomas Jandris, a dean at Concordia University Chicago.
Mark D. Benigni, the superintendent of the Meriden public school system in Connecticut, said the costs of extending coverage will be steep.
“At a time when student needs are increasing, budgets are shrinking and state and federal mandates escalating, we cannot effectively sustain these significant healthcare expenses,” Benigni said.
He said the law could cost his district up to $4.6 million over time. The costs, he said, are a result of a provision that requires districts to expand the benefits and eligibility of coverage to current employees – including covering children up until the age of 26 – and from the law’s call to insure employees working at least 30 hours a week. He said the total costs on his city’s board of education would be up to $570,000 a year – or the equivalent of five teaching positions.
The ACA’s so-called employer mandate requires that public and private employers with at least 50 workers provide health insurance to full-time workers or pay a fine. That requirement would apply to many educational institutions.
The Internal Revenue Service is still working on how to calculate the workload of adjuncts, which will determine whether healthcare will be extended to them.
That could amount to new costs for colleges that rely on adjunct faculty, who are hired on a contractual basis rather than being given tenure and a permanent position, and have often have been considered part-time workers.
Maria Maisto, president of New Faculty Majority, a coalition that supports adjunct teachers, said colleges rarely provide health benefits to part-time faculty, with less than a quarter receiving health insurance from their employers even though they fill up three-quarters of the overall teaching positions. She said most of the work done by adjuncts is outside of the classroom.
“It is not ACA but rather these colleges’ interpretation of and response to the law that is hurting adjuncts and their students. Colleges have lots of choices and unfortunately for their students too many have chosen not to support and invest in faculty,” Maisto said.
Many colleges have adopted a definition of faculty work as comprising “one hour outside of class for every hour a faculty member is in the classroom.” She said this is solely to avoid the employer mandate.
Republicans on the panel warned that the 30-hour threshold will force schools, just like other employers, to cut jobs, scrap programs, and incur greater costs.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the committee’s ranking member, said employment data does not support this assertion.
“According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) since the ACA became law nine out of ten jobs created have been full time jobs. The BLS data contradicts the claims that employers are shifting employees just below the 30-hour threshold,” he said. “There is no data to support this as a widespread practice.”
Democrats said that schools have avoided providing adjunct professors with health insurance for too long. They said the ACA would end up helping hourly and adjunct employees who often work substantial hours with no health insurance.
While some educators have asked that the coverage threshold be raised to 40 hours, Democrats on the committee argued that the change would hurt part-time workers who would otherwise be insured.
“At a time when the local resources aren’t there, there [are] reduced federal resources, something has to give. The last thing I need right now is another mandate and another expense,” Benigni said.
Earlier this year, the White House delayed the employer mandate provision of the law for one year, which was originally scheduled to take effect in January 2014.
Gregory Needles, who works on employee benefits at the Morgan, Lewis & Bockius law firm, said the delay has had a minor effect on schools’ decisions.
“By extending it a year, that’s helped them to take a more measured approach, but it’s not changing the decisions that they are making,” he said. “Perhaps the implementation is getting delayed a fraction.”
Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) pushed both Jandris and Benigni to explain how they would provide coverage to hourly employers and uninsured workers if employers were not required to provide it.
“How do you think we should provide health insurance to those families?” Andrews asked.
He said a person making $25,000 a year would not be able to afford insurance products on the regular market. Thus, a good way to provide coverage to these people would be through the ACA, which “[sets] up a marketplace where a person could go buy insurance of their choosing and receive a subsidy to help them pay for it.”
“I assume you think it is a pretty good idea,” Andrews said.
“As long it is not paid for on the backs of our students and adjunct faculty,” Jandis responded.
Benigni said his job was to educate kids and not to figure out how to get money to pay for health insurance for uninsured people.
“That’s really a discussion for you to have,” he responded, “but for me as a school system leader, whose job in charge is to educate kids, you can’t take money at a time when resources are so thin, from students who need that upper hand, too.”