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Rep. Canales urges Gov. Abbott to call special session of the Legislature to save failing state health insurance program for retired teachers and retired public school employees

Featured: Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, prepares to read from “Fox in Socks”, which is part of the famous Dr. Seuss series of books for children, to students at Lyndon B. Johnson Elementary School in Edinburg on Friday, March 2, 2018. Canales, whose support for public education in the Texas Legislature is one of his highest priorities, is asking Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session to help the more than a quarter-million retired Texans and their dependents struggling with higher monthly premiums and less coverage through the Teacher Retirement System’s TRS-Care.

Photograph By ALEX RÍOS

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Rep. Canales urges Gov. Abbott to call special session of the Legislature to save failing state health insurance program for retired teachers and retired public school employees

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Legislativemedia@aol.com

With more than a quarter-million retired Texans and their dependents struggling with higher monthly premiums and less coverage through the Teacher Retirement System’s TRS-Care, Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, is calling on Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session of the Texas Legislature to address the issue.

“My retired local teachers and retired public school employees, who are on a fixed income, are now paying hundreds of dollars more a month (sometimes more) for healthcare services and essential medications,” Canales stated in a letter addressed to the governor. “These Texas teachers and school employees, who have dedicated their lives to service, increasingly have to make the choice to pay their mortgage, buy groceries, or pay for their potentially life-saving medications.”

A session is the period during which the Texas Legislature meets.

The regular session convenes every odd-numbered year, and may last no more than 140 days. The next regular session of the Texas Legislature begins in mid-January 2019.

A called session, commonly referred to as a special session, is so designated because it must be called by the governor. A called or special session may last no more than 30 days, but consecutive special sessions may be called by the governor.

In his letter to Abbott, dated Thursday, March 29, 2018, Canales recalled how last year, the stakes were high for TRS-Care, which was on the edge of disaster for the huge number of Texans who had been promised by politicians that the state government would take care of them in exchange for their public service.

“At the beginning of the 2017 Texas Legislative session, there were widespread fears that the Texas Teacher Retirement System’s TRS-Care, which insured around 270,000 retired teachers and retired public school employees and their dependents, was about to collapse,” the House District 40 lawmaker reminded the governor. “The Texas House led efforts during the regular session to fix the ailing system but the majority of the Senate was reluctant to support our educators.”

In late May 2017, Canales and his fellow colleagues in the House had offered a $500 million increase to help fund TRS-Care, with that amount coming from the Texas Economic Stabilization Fund, also known as the Texas Rainy Day Fund, which is estimated to reach $12 billion by 2019 if left untouched, according to the Texas Tribune.

The Texas Rainy Day Fund, which is largely fed by taxes on oil and gas production, has been at the center of debates this legislative session over whether to tap it to help stave off budget cuts, the Texas Tribune noted.

However, the Senate had offered $350 million from the state, but wanted local school districts statewide to provide an additional $134 million.

Canales commended Abbott for seeing “the need for action” and consequently adding TRS-Care to the July 2017 special session call. “Yet, the solution that resulted from that special session was just another temporary and partial fix.”

Canales emphasized to the governor “it is clear to me that we cannot wait for the next regular legislative session, which begins in January of 2019, to create a permanent fix for TRS-Care. I humbly request that you call a special session of the Texas Legislature” to address the needs of such a powerful constituency.

In closing, the state representative asked the governor, “If we don’t support our teachers, what does that mean about the Texas Legislature’s support for students and the overall Texas education system? I look forward to continuing the dialogue with your office, and the possibility of working together to create a Texas education system where we recognize that great schools start with supporting our great Texas teachers.”

Chris Ardis of McAllen, who retired in May 2013 following a 29-year teaching career, praised Canales and Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, for their continuing efforts to fix TRS-Care.

“Since the healthcare nightmare – created during the 2017 legislative session – began impacting Texas public school teachers, custodians, secretaries, librarians, nurses, maintenance workers, classroom aides, cafeteria workers, administrators, and social workers, we have been waiting…and waiting…and waiting for a – just one – Texas legislator to step up to the plate to fight for us,” she wrote in her education website, chrisardis.blogspot.com.  

“Today, I received the best news I have heard since January 1,” she added. “Not one but two Texas legislators, Rep. Terry Canales and Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio), have stepped up to the plate by formally asking Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session to address our healthcare.”

Ardis, who now helps companies with business communications and social media, is also featured by the Rio Grande Guardian, including in its Facebook Live Conversations on “All Things Education”.

“In my blog earlier this week, I wrote about one of the countless cases that have left retirees who dedicated our lives to serving the children of this state unable to pay for the healthcare we were promised throughout our careers and when we signed our retirement papers,” she stated. “A book could be compiled of these cases, and it is only the end of March (2018).”

Menéndez, in an editorial sent out to major statewide news media outlets in early March 2018, recalled that “retired educators tell me that they cannot go to the doctor anymore because they cannot afford their insurance deductibles if they are younger than 65. Many Medicare recipients suffer the same higher premiums and deductibles. As premiums have doubled and tripled each month into the hundreds and thousands of dollars, some retirees have had to search for jobs as substitute teachers to help make ends meet or gamble on other lower-cost insurance plans for their spouses and dependents. Many thousands of retirees had to opt out of TRS because they can no longer cover premiums, a departure that makes it more difficult for those who remain in the plan to cover costs.”

One of every 20 Texans is a member of TRS living on fixed retirement benefits, Menéndez added.

“For them, the doubled or tripled premiums have been devastating. Only about 5 percent of Texas education retirees are eligible to receive Social Security income, and there has been no cost-of-living increase for those who retired in 2004 or later.”

Canales explained that the Texas Legislature is already working on ways to deal with helping improve TRS-Care, and said those efforts should take place in a special session as quickly as possible, instead of waiting for solutions to be considered during the regular session in 2019.

According to the Texas Retired Teachers Association (TRTA), the following actions are taking place:

The Texas Legislature recently released its interim charges for the Texas Senate and House of Representatives. The charges include issues pertaining to the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) pension fund and the TRS-Care retiree health insurance program. The charges will direct committees to study certain facets relating TRS, and the reports generated by the studies will help inform and guide policymakers in 2019.

TRTA is focused on advancing an agenda of protecting the defined benefit plan, securing a pension increase for retirees, and advancing new and innovative funding solutions to address the TRS-Care shortfalls.

House Committee on Appropriations 

The House Committee on Appropriations will study the long-term sustainability of the TRS-Care program. The committee will also consider options for funding this health care program, especially as it pertains to contributions being based on active employee payroll rather than the cost of health care. The committee will monitor how the bills passed by the Texas Legislature relating to TRS-Care are implemented during the interim.

Two bills were passed relating to TRS-Care, H.B. 3976 and H.B. 30, and TRS has already used these bills as the blueprint for how it funds TRS-Care and organizes its participants’ benefits.

House Committee on Pensions 

The House Committee on Pensions is of the utmost importance in determining the future health and funding for the TRS pension fund. The committee has been charged with reviewing the state’s oversight of pension systems. Additionally, the committee will be responsible for making recommendations to enhance the state’s oversight of local pension systems. The committee will evaluate the investment oversight of a number of state-run retirement systems, including TRS. It will identify the best practices made by the agency and make recommendations to strengthen the state’s oversight of the system. The health incentive programs within the group benefit programs at TRS will be reviewed and evaluated by the committee as well. The committee will be responsible for making recommendations on how to reduce expenditures through TRS-Care. Similar to the House Committee on Appropriations, the Pensions Committee will review the implementation of bills passed relating to TRS.

House Public Education Committee 

The House Public Education Committee will review the charter school system in Texas. It will consider the differences in charter and district contributions to TRS on behalf of their employees and make appropriate recommendations to support the retirement benefits of all public school teachers.

Senate Finance 

The Senate Finance committee will monitor health care costs throughout the state agencies, including TRS. The committee will attempt to improve and reduce health costs within TRS-Care.

Senate Health and Human Services 

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee will compare alternative payment models with providers in Medicare managed care, which includes TRS. The goal of these models will be to identify ways in which TRS and the Employee Retirement System (ERS) can work together.

Senate State Affairs 

The Senate State Affairs Committee will examine and assess the TRS pension fund. It will review the different types of retirement plans, the actuarial assumptions used by TRS, TRS’s investment practices and performance and the adequacy of financial disclosures. The committee will make recommendations to ensure public pension system retirees’ benefits are preserved and protected. The committee is also charged with monitoring the implementation of legislative action on TRS from the past session.

Specifically, the Senate will monitor the following: the implementation of House Bill 3976, relating to the administration of and benefits payable under the Texas Public School Retired Employees Group Benefits Act.

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Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, represents House District 40 in Hidalgo County, which includes portions or all of Edinburg, Elsa, Faysville, La Blanca, Linn, Lópezville, McAllen, Pharr and Weslaco. He may be reached at his House District Office in Edinburg at (956) 383-0860 or at the Capitol at (512) 463-0426.

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