Meriden school superintendent testifies on health care law

MERIDEN — School Superintendent Mark D. Benigni told Congress last week that the Affordable Care Act could lead to program and staff cuts if it is not changed.

Benigni testified Thursday for the 41-member U.S. House of Representatives Education and Workforce Committee.

“At a time when student needs are increasing, budgets are shrinking and state and federal mandates escalating, we cannot effectively sustain these significant health care expenses,” Benigni told the panel. “This will cause us to cut staff, reduce programs, minimize current healthcare plans, cut employee hours, and consider outsourcing current services. It will be our students who lose out.”

Benigni was chosen to testify by the American Association of School Administrators. The association routinely asks superintendents for opinions and data on issues influencing their school districts.

A day after his trip to Washington, Benigni elaborated on his concerns. Meriden would be subject to additional $150,000 annual tax under the health care act. If the Board of Education budget is not increased to cover the tax, it could mean eliminating two teaching positions. The cost of expanding eligibility to cover children up to age 26 already costs the board up to $570,000 annually.

The board could be in line to pay another $1.2 million in the upcoming budget because the school district would be required to offer health insurance to nearly all employees working 30 hours per week and their dependents. The district has created several new 30-hour positions to keep special education students in the city.

“My role was to let Congress know that there may be some unintended consequences and impact on our finances and they may be significant,” Benigni said. “My recommendation was to only require (health insurance) for 40-hour employees to minimize some of the negative impacts on the school system ... Students should not lose out because of this law.”

Noelle Ellerson, the administrators association’s associate executive director for policy and advocacy, said after reaching out to a handful of members on the issue, Benigni “rose to the top” and was asked to speak in Washington.

“Mark’s school district was an interesting case study,” Ellerson said, referring to an increase in 30-hour workers. “Everything was negotiated and agreed upon on at the local level. Then the federal standard would undermine that.”

In total, Benigni said the health care act could cost the district $4.6 million by 2018, or the equivalent of 58 teaching positions.

Wallingford School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo said a subcommittee of the Board of Education is examining the impact of the health care act.

One main concern is the cost of offering health insurance to substitute teachers working more 30 hours per week.

“We will have to balance what is cost-effective and what is the appropriate health care plan that we can provide,” Menzo said. “Over the next month ... we will come to the resolution of whether or not the board can do something like offer insurance to those who work 30 hours a week or what the cost analysis of something like that is or do we look at taking the penalty.” 203-317-2266 Twitter: @DanBrechlinRJ

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