When it came to picking a health care provider, Killeen Independent School District employee Laura Dunnells did her homework.
“I agonized. I researched,” said Dunnells, an assistant principal at Cedar Valley Elementary School.
Dunnells was one of 2,900 district employees who cast votes to indicate which provider they would prefer for the current school year. Just more than 1,000 of those employees voted for TRS ActiveCare, a health care program run by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas.
But the school board didn’t agree.
Four members of the district’s board of trustees — Shelley Wells, JoAnn Purser, Ken Ray and Susan Jones — voted instead to select another provider, Blue Cross Blue Shield, during a Sept. 26 meeting.
Their decision was met with a strong reaction from employees, who said premiums under ActiveCare would be cheaper. District employees said they will have to pay hundreds of dollars more every month under Blue Cross Blue Shield.
ActiveCare actually allows employees to get insurance through a number of providers under its umbrella, including Blue Cross Blue Shield. Comparisons of similar plans showed that TRS Blue Cross Blue Shield coverage was still a cheaper option.
The vote for Blue Cross Blue Shield also means that a local insurance agency, Killeen-based Bigham Kliewer Chapman & Watts, will likely get thousands of dollars in fees from Blue Cross Blue Shield. The Killeen insurance company has been doing business with the board for the past 10 years.
William Kliewer, a former school board member who ended his time on the board in 2005, is a managing partner with the company. Killeen ISD documents show that another managing partner, Ken Chapman, conducted business with the board on behalf of the company.
According to IRS filings from the previous fiscal year, Blue Cross Blue Shield paid $170,799 to Bigham Kliewer Chapman & Watts when the district chose the provider last school year.
Dunnells was one of several employees who spoke at Tuesday’s school board meeting. After outlining the process of why she came to vote for TRS ActiveCare, she asked the board members who voted against it “to explain the process you went by.” Dunnells said she expects her health care costs to go up between $300 and $350 per month. “I’d like you to explain to my family why it’s $350 more from my paychecks.”
Dunnells wasn’t the only employee to ask for an explanation. But there was little said by board members, only a statement from Wells, the board’s president, that the Sept. 26 decision could not be undone.
Jones, Ray and Purser did not return requests from the Herald for comment last week on their votes for Blue Cross Blue Shield. But all three addressed the matter during the Sept. 26 board meeting, shortly before voting.
Purser said her concern was TRS ActiveCare costs could go up unexpectedly due to the provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act.
Jones said there were too many unknowns and noted there were no provisions in state law that allow a district to opt-out of ActiveCare once it was selected as a health care provider.
Ray said while the cost of ActiveCare may be less than Blue Cross Blue Shield, he believed the insurance company would “find a way” to increase the cost.
“If there’s money left on the table, they’re going to find a way to get it back,” Ray said.
When reached by phone Thursday, Wells said she had no further comment beyond her statement at Tuesday’s meeting: “We have heard the concerns of several employees about rising health insurance costs, as well as the process for selecting a health insurance provider. We have guidance from legal counsel that undoing our recent decision is not a viable option at this time.”
Board Vice President Terry Delano, who, along with Corbett Lawler, voted against Blue Cross Blue Shield, said he’s worried this year’s experience could negatively impact the process next year.
“Our district employees are intelligent people. They spent their valuable time studying the health care plans, and they made a well-informed decision concerning their own health care,” Delano said. “I can understand why employees would be hesitant to vote again since the votes they cast were not given much, if any, consideration.”
Delano said he was worried this year’s decision, and the resulting hit to Killeen ISD employees’ wallets, would cause some staff to seek employment at other area districts in the future.
According to ActiveCare’s website, the Copperas Cove, Belton, Temple, Gatesville and Salado school districts all use it.
“I am concerned, very concerned about that,” Delano said. “We value our employees, and we want them to stay here in the district.”
Lawler said he thought more employees would participate in next year’s process.
“I expect the board to be very sensitive about what the employees think,” said Lawler, a former educator whose daughter and son-in-law are teachers. “I also think you will see even more employees play an active role.”
Board member Minvera Trujillo, who was out of the state when the board took the vote, said she would have “stood with the teachers.”
No board members would discuss the specific reasons why the vote on the district’s health care coverage could not be undone, instead deferring to Wells’ statement that undoing the deal is “not a viable option.” It’s unclear if Killeen ISD already signed a contract with Blue Cross Blue Shield for the new year.
“What bothers me is the families (of employees),” Lawler said. “I feel I was on the right side of that vote, but I still feel for those families.”