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The Hopewell Valley Regional School District Board of Education at a meeting last night made a unanimous vote to change the employee health benefit plan to Horizon Blue Cross/Blue Shield (“Horizon BC/BS”) before a packed house of vocally dissatisfied district employees.

The decision to move to Horizon BC/BS comes on the heels of a state announcement of an intended state plan increase of 11.3% starting January 1, 2015 and likely an additional increase in 2016. The board explained that the Horizon BC/BS rates would be guaranteed for 18 months.

Currently 80% of the district employees are already on a Horizon plan while 20% are using Aetna and will be required, with this change, to select a Horizon plan but without an increase in premiums. The board explained that the new Horizon BC/BS plan would have no more required referrals, out of network benefits would be available, and access to Horizon doctors.

The district admitted that any changes can be difficult and assured that they will attempt to ensure a smooth transition. They will be hosting benefit enrollment meetings during the first two weeks in November, getting assistance from trained professionals. And ultimately, employees will receive their new health cards right before the 2015 new year.

During the open public comment portion of the meeting, Heidi Olson, the president of the Hopewell Valley Education Association, requested time for the employees to review the plan. “We are aware of the district’s intent to change the medical benefits. While the board has had the chance to verify the facts, we just learned about it today.* We need more information to inform our members as to whether there is a benefit or not regarding this change.” Met with resounding applause Olson emphasized, “We need to do this right. We need time to do the research.”

Olson also asked questions regarding the obligation to pay a broker fee and also inquired the district’s assurance that the rates would not increase after the 18 months of guaranteed rate. The answers provided by the board regarding broker fee is that the fee would be absorbed in the rates already quoted. The school board also acknowledged that it is likely that the rates would increase after the 18 months, however they are already facing a 11.3% increase immediately if the district does not make the move.

“There’s always a chance for an increase,” said Robert Colavita, HVRSD business administrator, “But we have become an attractive district for carriers and the same thing can be done in 18 months that was done this time. The district reviews this annually and it felt like the right time to come consider a switch.”

Other concerns individuals raised were regarding experience with coverage problems especially with regard to mental health or substance abuse services. One individual stated, “It would be a tremendous downgrade in my policy carrying. I do not believe that my coverage will be equitable regardless of how much I’m paying.”

The district has stated that Horizon BC/BS is guaranteeing a “equal or better” policy meaning that those receiving benefits from a particular provider will continue to do so.

When moving toward a vote, the union requested a delay for more time to consider the decision. Lisa Wolff, HVRSD school board president, stated that there are no more opportunities to make the decision as the district must make the decision by November 1st, in order to meet the the 60 day notification requirements. Because of the time constraints and the frequent travel of many of the board members, Wolff did not foresee the ability to have a quorum.

During the voting, Bruce Gunther, school board member shared, “I’m conflicted. I know how scary it is when people try to mess with something that hasn’t been long discussed. However this is an ‘equal or better’ change and a cost savings to the membership. If the plan ensures a continuation of services — in particular when someone is in a treatment center or has a relationship with a mental health provider, then this ‘equal or better’ is money in the pocket.”

The decision was voted unanimously of the 8 school board members in attendance.*

** 10/21/14 10:41 – Corrections: 1) There were 8, not 7, school board members as we previously reported; 2) Information from the school board indicates that union leaders were provided with initial information about the health plan change a couple of weeks prior to the meeting however the actual savings information was revealed the day of the meeting, the day that it became available.

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Mary Galioto
Mary Galioto is the founder, publisher and editor of MercerMe, and a lawyer. Originally from Brooklyn, Mary has progressively moved deeper and deeper into New Jersey, settling in the heart of the state: Mercer County. Formerly the author of an embarrassingly informal blog, Mary is a lifelong writer and asker of questions and was even mentioned, albeit briefly, in the New York Times and Washington Post. In her free time, Mary fills her life with excessive self-reflection, photographing mushrooms, and misguided adventures in random hobbies. Mary also works as the PR Coordinator at the Hopewell Valley Arts Council, serves on the volunteer Board of Trustees of the Lawrence Hopewell Trail (LHT), serves on the Hopewell Borough Board of Health, is a member of the Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance, and holds the elected position as the Hopewell Borough Democratic Committee Municipal Chairwoman.

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