By Kiah Collier, The Texas Tribune | April 13, 2016

There is no easy answer.

That phrase, or some version of it, popped up repeatedly Wednesday as a special panel of state lawmakers began figuring out how to address skyrocketing premiums for teachers under state-run health insurance plans.

But members of the Joint Legislative Committee on TRS Health Benefit Plans, a new panel that met for the first time Wednesday, also repeatedly promised a mutually agreeable fix — one that may require the state, and possibly school districts, to pay more into the plan and teachers to receive fewer or more limited benefits.

“We can’t keep kicking things down the road,” said state Rep. Dan Flynn, a Canton Republican who co-chairs the panel.

"There are no easy solutions," he later added. "But I think there’s a willingness on the part of everyone to try to come to some conclusion. I really do."

State Sen. Jane Nelson, also the Senate’s lead budget writer, said the committee needs to make health care benefits at least somewhat competitive so “smart, sharp people” will want to be teachers.

“We’ve got to do that,” the Flower Mound Republican said, noting “there is no silver bullet.”

Teacher groups and school officials agreed that finding a solution would be difficult but reminded members that they have been asking state lawmakers to put more money into the plan for years and are willing to absorb some of the pain to ensure its long-term sustainability.

About half of all school employees in the state are covered under the plan, which was created to help smaller districts offer health insurance coverage. While it is used by almost all of the state’s more than 1,000 school districts, many larger ones with more employees are self-insured.

The employee share of premiums has more than doubled since 2003, the year after state lawmakers created the plan, while the state’s contribution has remained fixed at $75 per employee per month. School districts are also required to contribute a minimum of $150 per employee per month and have the option to contribute more. But teacher groups said Wednesday that many districts have not upped their contributions, or have done so by very little, leaving school employees to absorb most or all of the premium increases over the years.

It’s not that the premiums are that much higher than they are anywhere else, said Ann Fickel, associate executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association.

“The outlier here is what the employer is contributing,” she told the panel Wednesday, referring to the state. “That has remained static, in place.”

The employee share of premiums last year ranged from $325 to $555 per month for employee-only plans, according to the Teacher Retirement System, the state agency that administers the plan.

“I think there’s been 17 attempts to try to ask you all to increase state funding or district funding,” said Charles Richardson, executive director of benefits and risk management for the Fort Worth Independent School District. “I’m not smart enough to ask for that in a different way, so I’ll leave that where it is.”

Even Teacher Retirement System Executive Director Brian Guthrie noted during the hearing Wednesday that this is "now the third session I've been talking about various options" for addressing the issue. Those include eliminating coverage for spouses, moving to a high deductible plan with a health savings account or setting premiums based on employee age or where they live in the state.  

But when another teacher group alleged Wednesday that the state is paying far more for state employee health care, Flynn shot back.

“We’ve shown a lot of good faith,” he said, noting that “school teachers aren’t state employees.” “Let’s try to solve this problem, OK?”

“We would love to try to solve this problem,” responded John Grey, a lobbyist for the Texas State Teachers Association.

Last year, the association and other teacher groups again pleaded with lawmakers to address the issue, but — with tax cuts and increased spending on border security — they deferred, while also leaving billions of dollars unspent in the face of the economic uncertainty created by low oil prices. But House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick signaled a willingness to solve the problem with the creation of the panel, which also will recommend a fix for the state-run health care plan for retired teachers.

Legislators last year opted to fully fund that plan, known as TRS-Care, which had been projected to accrue a $768 million shortfall by the end of fiscal year 2017 if no new money was injected into the plan fund. That meant the Teacher Retirement System didn’t have to increase premiums for retired teachers and school employees this year and next. However, the plan is set to run out of money again by the end of fiscal year 2017.

Disclosure: The Texas State Teachers Association is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2016/04/13/panel-promises-fix-teacher-health-care/.