The Pinellas County School District has closed schools, cut staff and may even furlough principals in an effort to balance its budget — all cuts with direct impact on students. Yet the school district still won't require its employees to pay more than 20 percent of their health insurance premiums. Other local governments also are slashing services while employees pay little or nothing toward their insurance premiums, and it is time to start trimming those benefits instead of more public programs.
Many private sector employees would jump at the chance to pay only a fifth of their health insurance premium. These days they often pay 50 percent or more — if their employers even offer group health plans. But employees of the Hillsborough County School District who choose the district's basic health plan don't pay a penny toward their premiums. The district — read: taxpayers — pays 100 percent of the premiums.
The city of St. Petersburg is struggling to close a $12 million gap in next year's proposed budget but doesn't plan to increase employees' 25 percent share of insurance premiums. The city of Clearwater has sharply cut library hours and recreation programs, but it still pays 100 percent of employees' premiums for the basic health plan. Pinellas County government pays 75 percent of the employee premium for its lowest-cost health insurance plan and pays close to 50 percent of the premium for employees' family members. Hillsborough County government pays a more reasonable 58 percent of the employee premium for its most popular insurance plan.
The inequity between the private and public sectors extends to Tallahassee. For the first time, state legislators and state government executives in 2011 will have to pay something toward their health insurance premiums. But it will be a relative pittance — $100 a year for individual coverage.
School and government employees would argue that their co-pays and deductibles are rising, but that has been happening in the private sector for several years. Robust benefit packages, including heavily subsidized health insurance premiums, once were considered necessary to lure top talent to public sector jobs, which generally paid lower salaries than the private sector. But over time that differential in salaries has narrowed. Local governments and school districts can no longer defend such rich benefit packages in an era of such deep cuts to public services.