It's the Biennial TRS-Care Scare!

In 12 days, counting weekends, the 85th Texas Legislature will come to a close. It looks like we won’t know until the last minute what our legislators will do about TRS-Care, the health insurance coverage for all retired public school employees in the state. Yes, it’s the Biennial TRS-Care Scare!

As I shared with you last week and in previous columns, the State of Texas has two retirement systems for state employees. The Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) is actually for all public school employees in the state. The Employee Retirement System (ERS) of Texas provides benefits for non-public-education state employees and for elected officials, law enforcement, custodial officers, and judges. ERS always seems to have plenty of money for its retirees. So much, in fact, that while I am paying $295.00 per month for health insurance, my counterparts in ERS are paying $0.00 for theirs. The 85th Texas Legislature is debating what to do about the TRS-Care projected shortfall of $1 billion, which means TRS retirees are facing our monthly premium rising to between $370 and $430. Meanwhile, ERS retirees are enjoying their 100-percent-free health insurance.

And there’s more to this TRS vs. ERS story. Dental and vision coverage are not provided as part of my TRS-Care insurance. To get it, I first had to become a member of the Texas Retired Teachers’ Association, which costs $35 per year. TRTA is an excellent organization that fights diligently for retired teachers across the state. For the battles they fight on our behalf, their annual fee is definitely reasonable; however, bear with me to see why I am including this. After paying my annual TRTA membership fee, I am then able to get dental and vision coverage for $62.62 per month. That means I am paying $357.62 per month for health/dental/vision coverage. I am paying $4291.44 per year, plus my required $35 per year TRTA membership, for a grand total of $4326.44 per year.

Non-public-education state employees, elected officials, law enforcement, custodial officers, and judges are offered dental and vision insurance without membership in a “Retired Non-Education State Employees Association.” For dental coverage through Humana, the non-Medicare-eligible employee pays $9.59 per month. For State of Texas Dental Choice insurance, the retiree pays $26.61 per month. For vision coverage, ERS offers its retirees State of Texas Vision insurance for $6.69 per month. Let’s just say the ERS retiree chooses the higher dental plan. Each month for dental and vision coverage, the non-public-education state employee is paying $33.30 while public education retirees in Texas are paying $62.62 per month. Now let’s see what their health/dental/vision insurance costs per year. Zero dollars and zero cents for health insurance plus $399.60 annually for dental and vision insurance plus zero dollars and zero cents to join an association to get that dental and vision insurance comes out to a grand total of $399.60 annually, which means my health/dental/vision insurance costs $3926.84 more per year than state employees who retired under ERS.

Best-case scenario, if you can believe this, is for my deductible to go from $400 to $3000 (HB 3976; current Senate proposal is $4000) and for my Maximum-Out-of-Pocket to go from $4900 to $7150. According to the reports coming out of Austin, that is best-case scenario.

As I was preparing to submit this column to my editor, I received an email from TRTA executive director Tim Lee. The end of this legislative session is looming with no decision about TRS. The email reads, in part: If HB 3976 does not pass (along with the funding provided by the state budget), the current plan will remain in place for a brief time. However, due to the shortfall, TRS has testified that they may raise premiums astronomically to cover the difference (to the tune of roughly $1200 per month, which no retired public school employee I know could afford). It is predicted that in that scenario, the program would go into a death spiral and may end completely within two years, leaving retirees with no access at all to TRS health care.

While no solution yet offered by TRS or worked on by the Legislature may seem perfect, it is unacceptable for retirees to have no health care coverage. We are all working with the facts provided by TRS, and TRTA is working with the Texas Legislature to develop the best possible outcome for TRS-Care.

I wish our legislators had warned us of this before we chose to retire. Now I know what they meant when Texas teachers’ organizations would say, “We want insurance as good as the governor’s!” I want all retired public school retirees to have health insurance as good as the governor’s, as good as all of our other legislators’, and as good as all retired non-public-school state employees’!

Chris Ardis retired in May of 2013 following a 29-year teaching career. She now helps companies with business communications and social media and works as a sales coordinator for Tony Roma's and Macaroni Grill. Chris can be reached at cardis1022@aol.com.