As her colleagues picketed on Southeast Powell Boulevard Thursday morning, Cleveland High School social studies teacher Sadie Adams sat in a hospital room with her husband, Steve Middlebusher. Middlebusher started experiencing severe chest pain last week, which doctors determined was caused by a lung infection. He was admitted to hospital and had emergency surgery on Wednesday to remove excess fluid from his lungs.
As the couple waits for more tests and doctor’s orders, Adams is acutely aware that their county-provided health insurance will soon end. She is among 3,500 striking Portland Public Schools teachers who the district says will lose their health care coverage for December because they have now worked less than half of their contracted days this month. Middlebusher, who is self-employed, is covered by his wife’s insurance.
The Oregon Education Association said it will raise $5.1 million for teachers’ health insurance in December by paying them to enroll in COBRA, the federal program that allows workers to remain in their employers’ health care plan for up to 18 months after leaving the job. . The district does not anticipate that teachers will face any coverage gaps with the change, district spokesman Will Howell said in an email.
However, teachers say they are still concerned about delays or other issues as they switch from one insurance provider to another. And several say they are angry that Portland Public Schools did not extend health care benefits for teachers during the strike, especially since a top district official said days ago that the district would not use health care as a bargaining tool.
Howell says the district was clear from before the strike began that teachers would lose their health insurance if they missed more than half of their contracted days in November. Employees who go on extended unpaid leave also lose eligibility for the same longstanding policy, Howell said in an email.
Howell could not confirm whether Portland Public Schools had the power to expand teachers’ eligibility for health care benefits since they are governed by a third-party trust. He said the teachers’ union misrepresented the district’s policy in a Tuesday message to members saying the district planned to cut health care if the strike continued.
Without health insurance, the Addams family would have racked up tens of thousands of dollars in health care bills in just the last four days, she said. She is among the teachers who blame the district for allowing health care to become a factor in the strike.
The fact that they are trying to threaten to take away our health insurance is absolutely disgusting to me, Adams said in a phone interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive from the hospital Thursday. It just shows where their priorities are. Not with us. Not with students. It is only about their money and their allowance.
Howell said the district notified teachers in October of their health care eligibility policy. Howell said teachers will receive notification from the third-party administrator of the Health and Welfare Fund, which provides employee benefits, that they are ineligible for health benefits in December.
Kari Kirk, a fifth-grade teacher who has worked at Grout Elementary School for 15 years, said she feels incredibly disrespected by the loss of county health care. Her health insurance helps pay for expensive diabetes medication she can’t afford on her own and covers the two teenagers she’s raising as a single mom.
“A good 10 hours a week is taken away from my family, to plan classes, because I can’t do my job with the time they give me,” Kirk said. Now they want to continue to strip my family of our health care.
Stephen Nims, another social studies teacher in Cleveland, pointed to a tweet by Portland Public Schools Chief of Staff Jonathan Garka six days ago that fueled tensions between the two sides. We want to be clear: PPS has not and will not use teacher access to health care as a bargaining tool, Garcia tweeted.
“I don’t know if the district is unaware, or if they just don’t care,” Nims said, “of the intense resentment that teachers now feel toward the central office.”
Howell claims the district has not changed eligibility standards for employees in any way and even reminded union members of the potential consequences of a strike more than halfway through November.
Thursday marked the 10th day out of school for students and the 12th day without pay for educators since the strike began on November 1.
Teachers said Thursday morning they were still waiting for details on how to enroll in COBRA. Kirk said she hopes there won’t be too much red tape that could complicate the process of accessing the new insurance.
Adams, who worked in health care administration before becoming a teacher, said she saw firsthand how complicated switching insurance can be.
“If you have any kind of lapse in coverage, it can really screw you up, frankly, and it can create a huge financial hardship that’s absolutely unnecessary at this point,” Adams said.
In a statement, Oregon Education Association President Reid Scott-Schwalbach said the union is doing everything it can to ensure members don’t have gaps in coverage.
The OEA is ready to provide the financial support needed for COBRA benefits, Scott-Schwalbach said. We, of course, understand the anxiety of our members as they contemplate the bureaucratic nightmare that could ensue if the PPS decides to cancel 3,500 individual health insurance policies. Let alone what would happen if members had to re-enroll once a settlement was reached.
Julia Blattner, a high school teacher in Cleveland whose insurance covers her children, ages 5 and 8, and self-employed spouse, said she heard from other union members that the transition to COBRA should have been seamless. Fingers crossed, that’s the case.
That is much easier said than done, she said. I haven’t heard anything that (says) that dealing with health insurance is super easy.
Blattner said she took her 5-year-old son, Luke, to the doctor on Thursday because he had a persistent cough. Her visit should be covered by the co-pay, she believes, because she is still covered by the insurance provided by the district until this month. But the coming change in coverage is nervy.
It just changes from day to day what you do with your kids. Am I going to take them for a bike ride and they accidentally fall and break their arm? What will it look like financially for our family? She said. This is currently taking up a lot of space, as this is currently unsettled.
For others, the stakes are much higher.
Jennifer Owens, International Baccalaureate coordinator in Cleveland, is being treated for stage four breast cancer. She is constantly on cancer drugs and receives monthly infusions of drugs to strengthen her bones, which are compromised by other drugs. Her life, Owens said, depends on her health care.
While Owens said she feels confident her treatments will continue to be covered at the same level under COBRA after speaking with her providers, she said she wishes the strike process was less drastic.
It feels personal when you have a health compromise and your insurance is compromised, Owens said. We’ve lost a bit of our humanity in this whole process.
Sami Edge covers higher education for The Oregonian. You can get it at firstname.lastname@example.org or (503) 260-3430.
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