Teachers’ Unions Fight Effort to Scale Down Obamacare’s Employer Mandate

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The Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives has approved legislation that attempts to alter a provision in the federal health-care law that critics say harms school districts, but the measure has drawn the scorn of the nation’s two major teachers’ unions.

The policy in question requires employers, including school districts, with 50 or more employees to provide insurance to those who work full time—defined as those who work at least 30 hours a week, or pay fines. The GOP-backed legislation would change the mandate so that only employees working at least 40 hours would qualify.

Republicans say raising the hourly threshold would reduce costs for employers saddled with big costs as a result of the law. They argue that the mandate encourages employers, including school districts, to cut employee hours, rather than pay potentially steep costs to cover uninsured workers. The plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed in Indiana  by a number of school districts have made the same argument.

Workers whose coverage is not provided by their employers are eligible to receive insurance through government-sponsored options, such as exchanges created by the health care law, officially known as the Affordable Care Act.

Emboldened by recent, big gains in last year’s midterm elections, Republicans have vowed to press for changes in the sweeping health-care law, which was signed by President Obama in 2010. The hourly mandate legislation cleared the House by a 252-172 margin, with the vast majority of support coming from GOP lawmakers. President Obama has vowed to veto the measure.

“When middle-class Americans can’t work a full, 40-hour work week because of the president’s health-care law, they can’t provide for their families, pay their bills, or get ahead in a tight economy,” House Speaker John Boehner said of the bill.

The legislation has drawn the opposition of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, which in a letter to House lawmakers, predicted the change would disrupt the lives of workers around the country. The union specifically cited risks for college employees, such as adjunct faculty. 

“This unwarranted change would subvert the law’s intent to cover more Americans and would close off a much-needed health-insurance option,” AFT President Randi Weingarten wrote in the letter.

Some critics predict that raising the 30-hour threshold to 40 hours would have the opposite effect Obamacare’s detractors intend.

They point to analyses such as one completed by the Commonwealth Fund that predict that setting a 40-hour mark would create greater incentives for employers to cut workers’ hours, because with the change, many more workers would be close to the threshold for employers providing insurance. Increasing the hourly threshold would also raise taxpayer costs by increasing reliance on Obamacare’s subsidized insurance, the organization concluded.

The National Education Association also criticized the measure, saying some employers, including K-12 districts, have misinterpreted or mischaracterized the health-care law’s provisions as arguments for cutting employees’ hours.

As written, employers and districts “can minimize or even avoid penalties, but some employers fail to factor these options into their analyses,” Mary Kusler, the NEA’s director of government relations, told lawmakers in a letter.

The Republican measure “would create a disincentive for employers to provide health-care coverage, negatively impacting employer-sponsored health insurance and harming families, children, and educators,” the union official said.

[UPDATE (Jan. 12): Not everyone within the education community agrees with the unions’ stance on the 30-hour vs. 40-hour issue. The AASA, the School Superintendents Association, supports increasing the hourly threshold, arguing that the lower standard is at odds with “how most Americans think: full-time is a 40-hour work week,” the organization wrote in a letter to Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

The provision as written also confuses and places an unnecessary burden on school districts, the organization argued in its letter, in which it was joined by the Association of Educational Service Agencies, the National Rural Education Association, and the National Rural Education Advocacy Coalition.

The provision “threatens the ability of school districts to meet their programmatic and staffing needs so that they can fulfill their educational missions,” Noelle M. Ellerson, the AASA’s associate executive director of policy and advocacy, said in an interview.]

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