Anne Arundel County school officials will meet with representatives of three unions to discuss a contentious proposal to change the administrator of one of its health care plans.
"We believe it's comparable, if not better," said P. Tyson Bennett, attorney for the school board, of the proposal to switch to Minnesota-based United Healthcare. "We want the unions to be comfortable with that, as well."
The decision to discuss the issue within 30 days came after speakers from three unions told school board members at a meeting yesterday that changing from CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield without negotiations would violate their contracts.
"I'm pleased they've come to the recognition that they needed concurrence," said teachers union President Sheila Finlayson. "We've got a lot of questions that will need to be answered."
At this month's board meeting, schools officials briefed the board on the proposed five-year, $15.6 million contract with United for "preferred provider" programs.
The agreement with CareFirst expires at the end of the year.
The unions, which represent teachers, principals, cafeteria and maintenance workers, contend that CareFirst is named in their contracts and cannot be changed without their approval.
They said they conceded to increased payments for health care during recent contract negotiations, but not to switching administrators.
"We agreed to make that contribution predicated on the carrier, not on the cost of insurance," said Richard I. Kovelant, executive director and general counsel for the Association of Educational Leaders, after the meeting.
The group bargains on behalf of 290 managers such as principals and assistant principals.
Finlayson said her group, representing more than 3,000 of those now using CareFirst, settled on paying more "for a plan with which they were familiar and with which there was a history of satisfactory service."
"The appropriate place for this discussion is at a negotiating table," she added.
Bennett said the contracts state that the board can substitute comparable insurance coverage with concurrence of the union. "The question has arisen as to what is comparable coverage," he said.
Union leaders said members have called with worries that their physicians would not be part of the new plan.
"Our concern is to make sure that the employees' health benefits are protected," said James Sollers, president of a union representing cafeteria, transportation and maintenance employees. "We need to make sure the comfort level is there for every employee."
But school system officials said they believe that the product is similar if not superior to what is offered by CareFirst.
"We want to present all the details," Bennett said. "We believe that the unions will come to the same conclusion we have."
Schools officials said during the meeting that United Healthcare would actively recruit doctors for its network and that it would take measures to help patients with acute conditions during the transition.
The Anne Arundel Retired Teachers Association's executive board would support the change if the services were identical to or exceeded those offered by CareFirst, said President Max E. Muller.
Members of this group, which include any retired school personnel, do not negotiate with the school system.