PATERSON, NJ - Hundreds of teachers and other education professionals from schools across the city stood in front of the Board of Education on Tuesday to deliver a message: Return to the state managed School Employees Health Benefits Plan (SEHBP).
Complete with signs and t-shirts that referred to the switch out of the previous plan to a self-insured plan as the “Paterson Public Schools Healthgate Scandal,” nearly a dozen members of the Paterson Education Association (PEA), the union that represents nearly 3,000 teachers and other staff, shared their tales of woe related to getting approval for necessary healthcare.
The testimony came after a presentation by representatives of Liberty Benefit Advisors, the District’s health insurance broker. Met by jeers throughout, Giovanni Mancini, consultant with the firm, offered that while “original implementation (of the new plan) could have been better, Paterson Schools are poised to realize $16 - $25 million in health care costs during the 12 month contract.
Board Vice President Nakima Redmon took exception to that claim saying that the estimated savings do not reflect the two-month transition period during which the previous plan covered many claims. Commissioner Kenneth Simmons followed his colleague saying that while he’s “all for saving the District money,” he’d like to see some of those savings being passed on the employees.
With the public portion open of the meeting open PEA President John McEntee approached the podium and opened by thanking District officials and Board members for trying to work through the issues his members were facing. “Together we can get through this,” he se said before articulating several concerns, including that of a new parent that rang his phone at 3:00 a.m. because a member’s baby was being denied important treatment for a breathing program.
“I am not here to cast blame,” he said before pointing to the crowd behind him that he said was made of up not just teachers, but also principals, custodians, and other staff all facing similar issues with their new coverage. “500 people don’t show up to meeting unless something is truly wrong.”
“The great things happening in the District shouldn’t be overshadowed by problem’s with member’s healthcare,” he concluded.
Among the teachers to speak was Jaclyn Amato who, on May 31, 2015, at just 29 years old, suffered two strokes that combined would cost her weeks of hospital care with bills reaching close to $500,000. A high risk and complicated pregnancy followed the strokes and ran up an additional $500,000 in medical debt, all but several hundred dollars, she said, covered by the previous plan.
“My life turned upside down in one second,” she said, offering concern that under the District’s current plan she’d likely be responsible for a much greater share of the costs associated with the care that saver her, and her baby’s, life.
Noreen Velez, also a teacher, would follow telling the Board that in mid-December she began feeling severe back pain, making it difficult for her to work. Despite calls from a doctor to received an MRI, she said, Velez was denied, twice. “You’ve invested in (training) me,” she told the Board. “If I’m not healthy you’re not getting a return on your investment.”
Reiterating her call from earlier in the meeting, Board President Oshin Castillo responded to the public comments by requesting that the District prepare a report for the body to outline the costs associated with meeting the PEA’s request to transfer back into the SEHBP.
Asked where the discussion goes from here Superintendent Eileen Shafer offered that she was glad the teachers came out to be heard and that she’d continue to work with the union to resolve the concerns raised.
With both District officials and union leaders offering optimism that a new course can be charted, Shaffer said that when it comes to fixing the existing problems, “everything is on the table.”
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