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Thousands of petitions request lower health costs for public school workers

Public school employees are seeing their health insurance rates spike by more than 20% starting in 2013. That's why one teacher has started a crusade to help her fellow employees get a break from rising costs.
LITTLE ROCK, AR - Public school employees are seeing their health insurance rates spike by more than 20% starting in 2013.  That's why one teacher has started a crusade to help her fellow employees get a break from rising costs.

It looks like a typical meeting at the capitol, until you look closer at the more than 4,000 signatures taped up on the wall of a first floor committee room.

The signatures and the message for lower rates needed for public school employees comes from Mountain View School district teacher Shelley Branscum.

"It's gotten to the point where it has become such a burden that we just can’t manage it anymore," Branscum.

For a state employee on the highest tier of coverage, the “gold plan” the rate beginning January 1 is $95.78 a month. The same insurance for a public school employee will cost $226.70.

"My proposal is that they find some way just for insurance purposes to put state employees and public school employees together into the same pool," Branscum says.

That might not happen in the 2013 session but state senator Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) says all those signatures carry weight.

"We've got to find a solution because the public school employees aren't exaggerating the problem,” Elliott says. “It is as dire as it appears."

After writing a letter to her local paper and then to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in September, Branscum saw the momentum take off. Signed petitions just started flowing in.

Branscum says she is primarily an art teacher along with teaching Spanish and journalism at Fox’s Rural Special School. She hopes her students might pick up a civics lesson from her efforts as well.

"Just sitting around complaining isn't really a good option. We all have to complain but then if you don't actually do something,” Branscum says. “No one is going to know what your complaint is."

And Branscum says she will be ready to bring in even more signatures to the state capitol if and when legislators discuss the issue during the upcoming legislative session.

Arkansas Education Association executive director Rich Nagel told legislators Friday that local districts should contribute more to public school employees health insurance costs. Nagel added it may not be a popular idea, but local districts can't expect the state to carry the cost increases alone.

The state hasn't increased funding for public school employees health insurance since 2004.

By contrast, state employees will receive an additional $3.5 million in health insurance funding for next year.
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