For decades, affordable health benefits have been the comfy cushion public education employees could recline on in exchange for otherwise lackluster pay.
Even in lean times, salaries might be frozen for a spell, but insurance packages remained intact.
That tradition could be ending soon, as districts eye budget maneuvers that could have long-term implications for teachers and for the districts' ability to recruit educators.
Beginning in 2011 and beyond, Florida's financially struggling school districts are looking at handing over more health insurance costs to their employees.
"School districts have squeezed as much as they can out of the (health insurance) companies," said Glen Lathers, president of the Florida Education Risk Management Association. "I think most districts are looking more at employee participation — a larger deductible, paying more of a share of the premium."
This change isn't likely to come without a fight.
Teachers, credited with spearheading what is often referred to as the first modern insurance arrangement in 1929 in Texas, hold their benefits sacred. Famously organized, teachers unions lobby hard to preserve state funding for salaries and benefits, and they enter local negotiations with the same battle plan.
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Hillsborough County teacher Shelly Copeland didn't know how much her health insurance package could matter until after she suffered a heart attack and collapsed on the floor of her third-grade classroom two years ago.
Within six weeks, she was back in the classroom at Folsom Elementary, having paid just a couple of thousand dollars out-of-pocket for her care.
"It was a huge help," said Copeland, 35, who had not previously experienced health problems. "I believe that if I wasn't covered as much as I was, I would have had multiple bills to this day."
Stories like that illustrate the tough choices districts are facing.
"It's just not fun," said Deborah Henry, benefits manager for Hillsborough County schools.
Once upon a time, Henry enjoyed the challenge of coming up with a workable plan within the confines of whatever budgetary issues were at hand. But what had been a challenge is becoming impossible.
The district is facing a $20 million shortfall in its $1.3 billion operating budget next year. Maintaining the current insurance plan in 2011 could cost $29 million alone.
"Remaining with the status quo is not an option," Henry said.
Nor are the subtler trims of recent years. The district has offered higher deductible plans for lower premiums and has educated employees on how to keep their costs down. Today's fully paid premium option for single coverage comes with a $1,000 deductible, for example. It once had no deductible.
But fewer people chose the plans that were more profitable for insurer Humana, leaving Hillsborough, like many districts, caught between its insurer, its budget and its employees' needs.
In Pasco, facing a $28 million budget shortage, district leaders have put dental insurance on the potential chopping block, a move that could save $900,000. And though Pasco has for years offered fully paid insurance premiums for employees, there is talk of asking workers to ante up $30 a month toward the cost. Employees who add family to their plan already pay up to $8,305 a year.
Further, almost 37 percent of Pasco's school employees make less than $28,000 annually.
"We've streamlined to the point where there's not a whole lot left," said Summer Romagnoli, Pasco County school district spokeswoman.
How big is this to employees? In a survey, Pasco employees overwhelmingly said they would rather take a furlough than lose their fully paid benefits.
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During economically fat times when other industries were able to pay competitive salaries and strong benefits, few taxpayers balked at better benefits for teachers, said Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco.
But now, when growing numbers of Floridians are unemployed, and many who have jobs have no health insurance, the perception has changed.
"It's almost like we eat our own at times," Webb said. "Because the general taxpayer is struggling, there may not be the same amount of empathy that there has been in the past."
Skyrocketing health care costs combined with legislative funding cuts prompted the Florida School Boards Association six months ago to launch an effort to pool health insurance across districts. Managed through the association's existing Florida School Boards Insurance Trust, the group is making presentations to several small and medium-sized districts across the state.
Hernando Classroom Teachers Association president Joe Vitalo said he's worried about further erosion of what already is far from a top-tier benefits plan in his small district.
There, the district saw double-digit premium increases in each of the past few years and provider Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida dealt an average 14.5 percent premium hike for 2010. The district has historically picked up the majority of the increases rather then pass them on to employees.
"But as budget times get harder," said Heather Martin, executive director of business services, "that may change."
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In addition to the immediate welfare of their employees, districts worry that cutting health benefits will make them less attractive to prospective employees who are talented enough to get a better deal in another state or another profession.
"Long term," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of Florida School Boards Association, "as you cut back on benefits, it's going to be harder and harder to recruit employees to come in to the systems."
Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, said he believes the worries are founded.
Although private companies have more leeway to increase salaries as the economy improves, public-sector wages and benefits tend to get locked in for longer periods of time. "In the face of nobody doing well, it may not have an effect,'' he said. "But it'll hurt in a few years."
In Pinellas County, where the district is looking at lowering its support of health care premiums from 82 percent to 80 percent in 2011, 30 percent of employees make $30,000 or less annually, and 51 percent make between $30,000 and $50,000.
The lower the pay rate, the harder the hit from even minimal premium increases.
But risk management and insurance director Ted Pafundi said he expects much bigger premium increases in 2012, when the rate cap the district negotiated last year with its insurer expires.
Board member Linda Lerner said she would much rather see the district's more highly paid administrators take another furlough day than to cut take-home pay for those at lower salaries.
"These are tough decisions," Lerner said. "There are no good choices."
Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writers Tony Marrero and Tom Marshall contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or firstname.lastname@example.org.