It’s easy to get lost in the numbers and confused by the lingo when comparing health insurance plans or when trying to figure out why NJEA fights so hard to protect the options available for members and retirees under the School Employees’ Health Benefits Program (SEHBP). That’s when the real-life experience of a member can illustrate why joining NJEA—or as a retiree, joining NJREA—makes all the difference.

An NJREA member called NJEA headquarters in Trenton wondering if what she had learned about her father’s health insurance plan was true. Her father was not a retiree from New Jersey’s public schools and thus not an NJEA or NJREA member. He did not have the advantage his daughter had: a powerful advocate who could make sure his interests were represented when important health care decisions were made.

Decisions in health care should be between a patient, a patient’s family, and a health care professional. Those decisions should not be in the hands of a corporate bureaucrat.

After a brief hospitalization following a serious fall, she said her father found himself in a skilled nursing facility for rehabilitation. He could no longer walk, dress himself, wash himself or use the toilet independently. He needed physical and occupational therapy. For 20 days he received that therapy.

The therapy ended on the 21st day—not because he had regained any significant physical independence, but because a corporate bureaucrat who had never met him decided he was no longer eligible for rehabilitation coverage. The member had 48 hours to decide where her father would live.

This was his fate under a plan in which neither he nor an advocate who had his best interests at heart had a voice.

Decisions for health care plan design should never be left solely in the hands of those who worry more about dollars than patients. Decisions in health care should be between a patient, a patient’s family, and a health care professional. But patients and families can only make decisions when they have a menu of viable options. That’s where the advocacy of NJEA and its members is critical.

Standing up for all members

This has renewed relevance as the state Legislature seeks to move active and retired community college faculty and staff out of SEHBP and into the State Health Benefits Program (SHBP). On April 12, the Senate passed S-2455, which would do just that. As of press time, the Assembly version of the bill, A-2001, had not yet been heard in committee, and its fate was uncertain. (See Page 15.)

There’s a reason this may sound familiar. When this bill was introduced in the lame-duck session of the state Legislature that ended on Jan. 8, NJEA and NJREA members stood strong to oppose it. They insisted that changes to health insurance coverage should be negotiated, not determined by the state’s unilateral action. Their advocacy paid off when the legislative session ended before the bill could move forward.

While S-2455 made it through the Senate in this legislative session, the presence of NJEA and NJREA members in committee hearings and in the gallery of the Senate chamber had an impact. Support for the bill had diminished, and it passed by a narrower margin than expected. Such an outcome lends momentum to the campaign to oppose A-2001 in the Assembly.

The ability to negotiate the terms and conditions of employment—including health benefits—ensures that the voices and experiences of members are brought to the bargaining table.

NJEA members who work in, or are retired from, community colleges were not alone in this fight. They were joined by NJEA members who work in, or are retired from, K-12 districts. Those K-12 members could have concluded that because this measure did not directly affect them, they did not need to take action. Instead, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their fellow members. They know an attack on one member’s rights is an attack on all members.

The power of standing together as a union and advocating for one another’s concerns is what being an NJEA member is all about—both for our concerns as professionals and for our concerns as public employees. The ability to negotiate the terms and conditions of employment—including health benefits—ensures that the voices and experiences of members are brought to the bargaining table.

No student’s future should be determined by a standardized test, no teacher’s evaluation should depend upon the student’s performance on that test, no educational support professional should have to wonder every spring if his or her job will be outsourced, and no one—retired or actively employed—should have his or her health care decisions made by a distant and disinterested corporate bureaucrat.  It is our commitment as NJEA members to stand together—even when we aren’t directly affected by the outcome of the matter at hand—that ensures we all rise together.

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