It’s the Biennial TRS-Care Scare!

Since I retired from teaching, I have come to dread the “Texas Legislature Biennium.” It seems like every time our legislators meet, retired public school employees are at risk. It’s almost like deer-hunting season but with us as the target.

The 85th Legislature convened January 10. February 17, I received the first “target-shooting” alert from Tim Lee, executive director of the Texas Retired Teachers Association. (Although the initialism TRTA indicates it is an organization for teachers, it is actually the largest organization of public education retirees in the nation—not only teachers but anyone who worked in the public education system.) The email alerted TRTA members to get informed about the dramatic changes facing TRS-Care, the healthcare plan for retired public education employees provided by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. One bullet in the email read, “Total premium and deductible costs for pre-65 retirees could explode to $12,130 per year.” To put that in perspective, I currently pay approximately $3600 per year. An increase like this would mean paying a little over $1000 per month for my health insurance instead of the almost $300 per month I pay now. My heart rate increased dramatically while reading this email due to the realization that I would have to go without health insurance.

Why is the “TRS-Care Scare” happening again? Because the program is facing a $1 billion shortfall and possible dissolution within two years if the legislature doesn’t take action to prevent that from happening. Many surmise that if the premiums were to rise to these levels, most pre-65 TRS retirees would move from TRS-Care 2 and TRS-Care 3 levels to the TRS-Care 1 level, which is free. *I don’t know any retired teachers currently on TRS-Care 1 because the benefits are so limited. I am currently on TRS-Care 3.)

May 3, another email from Lee gave me and my fellow TRS retirees a glimmer of hope. That day, the House passed HB 3976, filed by Rep. Trent Ashby, by a vote of 143-0. The House must still have a third reading of the bill, and if it passes, it will go the Senate. If the Senate passes it, Governor Abbott must then sign it in order for HB 3976 to become law. Keep in mind that the legislature’s budget process is separate, so funding for this bill must also be passed by both the House and the Senate. All of this has to happen by May 29, the final day of this legislative session.

HB 3976 would provide $633 million in additional funding to TRS-Care. This funding would come from state revenues, as well as from the Economic Stabilization Fund (aka The Rainy Day Fund). The Senate’s companion bill, SB 788, only calls for $311 million in additional funding.

These are some of the most current proposed changes to TRS-Care:

1. TRS Care 1, 2, and 3 would no longer exist. Instead pre-65 retirees would have only one coverage option.

2. The House is proposing a $3,000 deductible while the Senate is proposing a $4,000 deductible. I currently have a $400 deductible, which translates to a $3600 increase with the House version and a $4600 increase if the Senate bill passes.

3. Maximum out-of-pocket expenses would increase from the current $4900 to $7150.

4. If the House version passes, pre-65 retirees’ monthly premium would start at $200 in 2018 and rise to $370 by 2021. The Senate version would require a monthly premium of $250 in 2018 and increase to $430 by 2021.

5. Retirees 65 and older would transition to Medicare Advantage and pay $146 per month for retiree-only insurance. That increases to $590 per month if a spouse is added.

Contrast all of this with the benefits provided to all other retired state employees through ERS, the Employee Retirement System of Texas. ERS provides retirement benefits for non-public-education state employees and for elected officials, law enforcement, custodial officers, and judges. Why is it that while retired public school employees face the “TRS-Care Scare” every biennium, ERS retirees have nothing to fear? Is it because elected officials are covered under this plan? Why does the state have two separate plans, one for public school employees and another for everyone else?

And did I mention that while I am currently paying $300 per month for health insurance and facing a monthly premium between $370 and $430, pre-65 ERS retirees pay $0 per month for their health insurance? That is not a typo. Zero dollars and zero cents. And the 85th Legislature has no plan of increasing theirs to even $1.00.

More on the TRS vs. ERS conundrum next week. In the meantime, beware (Be Aware!) my fellow pre-65 retirees!

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.