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Arlington teachers decry impending healthcare changes as a ‘catastrophe’

Over the course of an hour last night, Arlington Public Schools teachers excoriated the School Board and central administration for how they are handling what some call a healthcare catastrophe.

On Dec. 31, APS staff will lose the healthcare they receive from Kaiser Permanente and Cigna through APS, to be replaced in January by CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.

Many current and retired staff say this change will upend the Kaiser healthcare teams they have built for themselves and their families over several years and in some cases, decades.

APS says it solicited bids from healthcare vendors and received four proposals, including CareFirst, the vendor it ultimately selected — but not Kaiser.

The school system first announced the change on Sept. 20 and the response was swift. Teachers spoke up at the subsequent September School Board meeting and ARLnow received at least a dozen emails from staff who were upset and confused by the change.

These feelings reached a boiling point on Thursday despite efforts from APS to smooth things over. APS held a “resource fair” with CareFirst representatives and Human Resources staff to help understand their benefits and enroll but according to the teachers union, the Arlington Education Association, this did not ease the anxiety of the nearly 400 people who showed up — some of whom were turned away.

“This disrespectful treatment of staff, lack of response and inappropriate responses from HR and lack of transparency on issues that not only affect staff but students and families, is disheartening,” says teacher Tricia Zipfel.

When teacher Marnie Lewis took the microphone at the School Board meeting, she began crying but eventually rallied to encouragement from colleagues in attendance.

“This [change] really took me to my knees,” she said. “I can’t believe I’m here. I’m here because this is how upset I am. I used to love working here, I was proud to work here and I’m not feeling that anymore… I would just like it if someone could answer my emails and questions. That would be great.”

Teacher Heidi Haretos, who recently moved from North Carolina to Arlington, asked central office and the School Board: “If your wife, daughter, husband or son had a serious health condition, and had a trusted medical team supporting them through Kaiser, would you have made this decision?”

Josh Folb, a teacher and AEA member, says he has been getting phone calls, emails and texts from colleagues saying, and he agreeing, that “somebody should be fired for this.”

“I’m not here to debate the mechanics of healthcare procurement or ask why neither of our current providers chose to bid. I won’t even question the letter APS got, as if it was some kind of trophy, about Kaiser not bidding,” he said. “It’s what leadership failed to do with those facts that has caused many employees to lose faith and confidence in the cabinet’s ability to lead or care for employees.”

June Prakash, the president of the teachers union, said several employees joined the union after the healthcare changes were announced — a change that she said highlights why people join unions in the first place.

“People are looking to you for reassurance,” she said. “This is more about losing healthcare. It’s about losing trusted relationships… Trust is broken. What are you going to do to restore it?”

Music teacher Joshua Redhelm told the School Board decision-makers at APS have forgotten student-facing teachers, assistants and staff make APS one of the best school systems in Virginia.

“If deep structural changes are not made at the district level to treat staff with more honor and respect, they will leave,” he said. “They’re already leaving.”

Other teachers had sharp words for what they described as a general deterioration in the relationship between teachers and central office.

“True leaders see problems, true leaders acknowledge problems, true leaders fix problems,” said Yorktown teacher Deborah Waldron, noting teachers have been begging for changes, from equitable leave to higher wages to more staff, but see few results. “We are waiting for you to lead us.”

As a healthy, accident-free person, Yorktown teacher Aaron Schuetz said his relationship with Kaiser is more “casual” but a dear colleague — now teaching at Wakefield — is at Johns Hopkins Hospital for a bone marrow transplant and “fighting to stay alive,” but none of his former colleagues can donate their unused sick leave to him because the mechanism APS has to do so requires too much paperwork.

“When Syphax policies and procedures keep colliding with teacher wellbeing, it’s time for a change,” he said. “You may be in charge but you’re not being leaders.”

Ahead of these comments, a few School Board members apologized for how this transition is being handled.

“Please know that we understand that healthcare is deeply personal and it’s incredibly important to all of us in our lives,” said Bethany Zecher Sutton. “I’m not sharing that simply as a talking point: For two years my husband battled cancer, if we had had to endure a disruption in healthcare at that time, it would’ve taken a terribly stressful time and made it substantially more difficult.

“So I really mean it when I say this is personal,” Zecher Sutton continued. “We have work to do across our system to fully exemplify the empathy, respect and kindness that are central tenets of our APS values.”

People applauded this.

School Board Vice-Chair David Priddy and School Board Chair Cristina Diaz-Torres made similar comments, and Priddy exhorted administrators to show CareFirst how hard this transition is.

“I implore you to put as much pressure on CareFirst as possible in order to achieve the outcomes of our employees being cared for and understood,” he said. “We are about to hear from several, a multitude of employees, during public comment tonight. Send the video to CareFirst so they know… the level of empathy and understanding [to have] when onboarding our staff.”

Diaz-Torres intimated that responsibility for how staff has been treated lays also with CareFirst.

“We need to be on CareFirst every single day,” she said. “The way [staff have] been treated is unacceptable. If this is the vendor we’re working with, this is not a good start. I hope they take this seriously.”

In a statement, below the insurance provider said it is “eager” to help APS employees through the transition.

CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield appreciates Arlington Public Schools’ decision to engage with CareFirst to provide affordable, equitable, high-quality, accessible healthcare to their employees. CareFirst understands that healthcare is deeply personal, and we are eager to continue to partner with APS to support transitioning their employees to a new health plan.

ARLnow also asked Kaiser to explain what happened. The provider provided the following statement.

We have enjoyed our 36-year partnership and commitment to providing high quality care to the employees of Arlington Public Schools. We are disappointed that Kaiser Permanente will not be a health plan option for these employees in 2024. However, we hope to work with Arlington County Public Schools to support the health and wellness of the Arlington community and look forward to potentially being a health plan option for their employees again in the future.

APS is offering to give teachers one day of leave to find new providers. Superintendent Francisco Durán, meanwhile, will be hosting virtual and in-person listening sessions.

Last night, the School Board amended the work plan for a forthcoming internal audit to include a probe of how the new contract with CareFirst was procured.

In an email to staff, provided to ARLnow, Durán said he regrets not insisting “on a more transparent process from the beginning” or notifying staff earlier that the contract was up for possible renewal.

“I commit to correct this in the future by making sure all contracts up for renewal are shared openly and regularly through our ongoing communications, much like the process we use for sharing policies up for review,” he said.

He also noted Kaiser acknowledged to APS that “they were solely responsible for not submitting a proposal.”

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