By Invitation Only: How the MMSD-MTI Health Insurance Task Force Limited Its Options

In June of 2005, when the majority of the Madison School Board approved the two-year collective bargaining agreement with the teachers union, the agreement included a task force to study and make recommendations on possible changes in health insurance coverage for the teachers, the majority of the district’s employees. Task force members would be the superintendent and his appointees and John Matthews, exuective director of Madison Teachers,Inc. (MTI) and his appointees. They were to issue a report no later than February 15, 2006.
From the beginning, the task force provision was a great deal for the teachers union. It was risk-free. If the parties could identify health insurance savings, the savings would go directly to increase teacher wages during 2006-07. The parties would re-open the contract to switch dollars from this important fringe benefit to wages. If not, the teachers would keep the current coverage and current wages.
A gain for the district was not so easy to identify. Superintendent Art Rainwater talked about the potential health insurance savings as a benefit in future negotiations. Lowering health insurance costs during 2006-07 would allow the district to continue high quality health insurance coverage for its teachers (as we should) and go into future negotiations with a reduced base for health insurance costs. With health insurance costs for all employees running at about $35M per year, any longterm reduction would help the board redirect significant dollars to school programs and staff.
If the task force had used the year to take a comprehensive, objective look at health insurance alternatives for the teachers, the school board might expect an important report this week. It would tell the board how dollars currently going to health insurance could be used for wage increase at no loss in quality of care for district employees. I don’t expect anything like that because we have not seen a serious effort to seek out alternative insurance proposals and evaluate them and the board has exercised no oversight or direction.
The task force has met twice at MTI headquarters, on January 11 and January 25. It did not solicit a wide range of proposals for health insurance for the teachers.
Instead, the task force invited the current providers, Wisconsin Physicians Services and Group Health Cooperative, plus Dean Care and Unity to make presentations. They did not invite Alliant (whose insurance is good enough for MMSD administrators and the custodial union), Physicians Plus (a very competitive local provider with a doctors’ network that overlaps the current providers), the State Health Plan (open to school districts) or WEA-IT (a company associated with the Wisconsin Education Associations Council). John Matthews, who continues to serve on the Board of Directors for WPS, did most of the questioning of the insurance companies at the task force meetings. The gist of his questions for Dean Care and Unity were whether they could provide what WPS currently provides, according to him.

The task force report is due in two days. The board has not met once during the year to discuss any aspect of the task force or its goals. The only information that the board has received in a copy of a memo from Human Resources Director Bob Nadler to Art Rainwater, dated February 7.
According to the memo, the district is “ready and willing to reopen the (collective bargaining) agreement if MTI decides to do so”. MTI is surveying its members. [memo: 93K PDF]