Spurned teachers, state workers preparing to flex political muscle

State lawmakers stamped out efforts to give 650,000 teachers, state employees and retirees a much greater say in their health coverage in the final hours of the 2014 session.

But that failed effort — and continuing problems for members of the $3 billion State Health Benefits Plan — have motivated thousands of teachers, state retirees and their families to vent their frustration at the ballot box.

The last time teachers moved to defeat a statewide candidate came in 2002, when Gov. Roy Barnes was ousted in part because of what educators considered his attack on their profession.

This time the motivating factors have been years of school spending cuts and, most recently, changes in health coverage that required teachers, state employees and retirees to pay much higher out-of-pocket costs in an effort to save the state money.

Activists say their efforts will be bipartisan, and mostly grass roots. But members of TRAGIC — which started as a Facebook-fueled protest in January — have made it clear they will be active in the upcoming elections, which begin May 20 with primaries for state and federal offices. State retirees say they are plenty motivated as well.

“For a long time, the feeling was teachers shouldn’t speak up about politics,” said John Palmer, a Cobb County middle school band director. “But we have seen an eroding of public support for education. Now people are realizing it’s all connected. It just got to the point where it became personal.”

All of this is relatively new to many of the teachers and family members active in the move to improve the health care plan.

An earlier group of activist teachers led protests from 2000-2002 against Barnes’ school reform efforts. Teachers complained that they felt the governor showed little respect for teachers, and they vowed to oust him even though, at the time, they were getting regular pay raises and seeing state school funding climb. They were one of several groups Barnes angered, and his loss ushered in the first Republican administration in Georgia since Reconstruction.

Today’s group has gone through several rounds of education budget cuts, forcing them to take days off without pay. Many have gone without meaningful raises since the start of the Great Recession, and some earn less than they did in 2008.

State employees have also not gotten raises, and retired state employees have gone without cost-of-living adjustments. Health care premiums through the State Health Benefits Plan have continue to rise.

Still, there was little organized political opposition until the Deal administration and his Department of Community Health (DCH) decided to save $200 million a year by changing the plan last year.

The changes went into effect Jan. 1 and forced many plan members to pay much higher out-of-pocket expenses when they sought treatment. Some plan members said medicine they’d been taking for years suddenly cost them 300 percent more. Plan members said they had to travel to find drugs they could afford or doctors who were part of their new network. One retired school system employee said oxygen tank deliveries she’d long been getting were cut back.

Ashley Cline, whose husband is a high school science teacher in Cherokee County, started a Facebook page, called Teachers Rally Against Georgia Insurance Changes, or TRAGIC, and the group’s membership mushroomed to nearly 15,000.

Deal, who faces re-election this year, quickly reacted in January by adding more than $100 million to the state budget to eliminate some of the high out-of-pocket costs. The General Assembly reacted by telling DCH that it needed to offer more insurance companies on the plan next year.

TRAGIC called those fixes “band-aids,” and joined with teacher groups, retirees and state employees in asking for representation on the DCH board, which approves the plan design.

Deal appoints those members, and Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, proposed a measure mandating at least two of them had to be on the state health insurance plan. His bill also called for a committee of plan members to be formed to advise the DCH’s commissioner.

McKoon said he was told his bill wouldn’t get a vote in the House after it had passed the Senate without opposition. So activists tried to get it attached to another House bill that would create a pilot program to cover weight-reduction surgery for some members of the State Health Benefits Plan. That amendment was dropped over concerns Deal would veto the original House bill. As the session wound down on the final day, March 20, Senate Democrats tried to attach it again to the House bill, but Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle disallowed it.

While that effort failed, Brian Robinson, the governor’s spokesman, said Friday that Deal will appoint a teacher to serve on agency panels that help develop and hire the private managers of the health care plan in the future. What that teacher’s role will be is unclear.

Even before the session ended, TRAGIC members were venting at state leaders on their Facebook page, calling for Deal’s ouster and criticizing the DCH board.

Cline said, “Everybody is going to want to be involved in the primary and the general election. We are trying to stick to our bipartisan roots.”

But she added, “We have a lot of members who are very angry at the governor and are very vocal.”

In a statement issued Friday, Deal’s campaign spokeswoman, Jennifer Talaber, said the governor headed into the campaign season “with a strong, positive relationship with educators.”

Palmer, the Cobb middle school band director, said the group is trying to expand beyond Facebook and is recruiting teachers throughout the state to be point persons for getting out information on candidates and issues. Palmer said members are looking for candidates who support education and improving their health coverage, regardless of party.

“I think our big challenge is to keep everyone active without looking through the partisan lens,” he said. “I am hoping we can at least get the issues out there.”

The health care changes have also riled other groups, such as state retirees. Bill Tomlinson, a former state budget director who has long been active in the Georgia State Retirees Association, said, “It brought them back to the awareness that they have to know what’s going on. We can’t sit back and assume they are going to take care of us, they have to be politically active.”

Former longtime Republican lawmaker Chuck Clay, now a statehouse lobbyist, said there are significant differences between the teacher revolt against Barnes in 2002 and the protests over the health plan now. Teacher anger at Barnes built over a few years leading up to the election and some felt he had personally attacked the profession.

Deal, on the other hand, tried to soothe things by adding money to the State Health Benefits Plan budget. Clay expects ongoing discussions this election year about ways to improve the plan. The governor also added more than $300 million to next year’s budget to help school districts eliminate furloughs, add days to the school year and give raises.

Such moves could help mollify at least some of the governor’s critics.

While no single group like teachers will decide the election, Clay said, “It’s not a group you want on the war path.”

By James Salzer
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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