Tuesday, March 3, 2020

TRS Officials Respond to My Open Records Request Regarding 2021 Health-Care Changes

            Monday, February 24, I filed an Open Records Request with the Teachers Retirement System of Texas regarding the 2021 health-care changes for both active and retired public-ed employees who are covered under TRS health-insurance plans.  My questions are based on questions TRS members began posing when the announcement was made two weeks ago that TRS retirees under the age of 65 would be moving from Aetna to Blue Cross Blue Shield and those over 65 would move out of Humana and into United Healthcare in January of 2021.
            Below are the questions (Q) I asked in my ORR and the responses (R) I received today from TRS:


Q: Are these plans already fully developed?  (ATTENTION ALL CURRENT PUBLIC-ED EMPLOYEES ON TRS ACTIVECARE!!!)

R: TRS-Care and TRS-Care Medicare Advantage rates and benefits will not change through 2021. The 86th Texas Legislature appropriated $231 million to keep TRS-Care premiums the same through 2021, and the added savings from the contracts allows TRS to support this commitment.
The TRS board will hear recommendations for TRS-ActiveCare benefits and rates at its meeting on April 16-17, 2020. While we were able to secure considerable savings for TRS-ActiveCare from the vendor transition, the program, like most other employer groups in the U.S., faces rising health care prices. We are currently reviewing the past year’s claims experience to project future health care expenses and will take those projections along with the contract savings into account as we finalize rates and benefits for TRS-ActiveCare. We encourage you to tune into the board meeting to hear the discussion. The agenda will be posted a few weeks in advance so you can determine which day the discussion will occur.
(MY NOTE:  Those of you who currently work in districts covered by TRS-ActiveCare, THIS IS YOUR OPPORTUNITY TO BE HEARD!  Contact TRS board members NOW, before their board meeting April 16-17.  Tell board members your stories now!  Contact TRS Board members through their secretary, Katherine Farrell at katherine.farrell@trs.texas.gov.


Q: Were current and retired TRS members part of the selection process?

R: Current and retired TRS members are not directly part of the vendor selection process; however, the evaluation team that reviewed proposals considers our members’ needs across a broad range of categories including financial savings, provider networks, customer service, communications, disease management, and clinical programs.
TRS goes through a rigorous process to select vendors. The process to select medical plan administrators was complex and took more than a year. Our goal was to select medical plan administrators who could meet our enhanced requirements for member satisfaction and care, accessibility, quality, and value. Ultimately, the team recommended to the board the administrators we knew could bring the most value and highest quality of care to our members.
Throughout the contract term, these administrators will conduct participant satisfaction surveys to make sure our members are satisfied with the plans. Following the board’s vendor awards announcement, the TRS staff work with the vendor the board selects to execute a contract that reflects the board’s decision, which is how major procurement processes are conducted.


Q:  Were/Are current and retired TRS members playing a role in developing the plans?

R: See above regarding TRS-Care – rates and benefits will be staying the same through 2021.
Over the past several months, TRS’ has met with school district chief financial officers, human resource directors, and assistant superintendents to engage in a dialogue about how we can
transform TRS-ActiveCare. This major effort is the first of its kind in the program’s near-two-decade existence. We are listening to our stakeholders and providing them with financial and health insights that paint a clear picture of the challenges facing the program. We will present recommendations for TRS-ActiveCare to the board in April that reflect the feedback we’ve received from districts as part of this initiative. We believe that, together, we can make this the program public school communities across Texas value.


Q: If they are NOT fully developed, how can TRS members provide PROACTIVE advice/feedback?

R: TRS members and retirees can always send us feedback to healthcarecomm@trs.texas.gov.
TRS-ActiveCare participants can also communicate the information to their district leaders or benefit administrators.
The TRS-Care Retirees Advisory Committee (RAC) holds public meetings on group coverage, recommends to TRS minimum standards and plan features, and recommends to TRS changes to rules and legislation affecting TRS-Care. The RAC periodically has open seats available for nomination. The committee meets at least twice a year in Austin and provides updates to the TRS Board of Trustees.


CALL TO ACTION!  SPEAK UP or REMAIN SILENT!
The choice is OURS!

TRS ActiveCare Members
Read the first question and answer above.  The TRS Board meets April 16-17 and will discuss YOUR plan! 
·         Send an email
·         Attend the meetings and sign up to speak
·         Submit letters to the editor of your local newspaper(s)
·         Tell your stories to your local television news stations
·         Speak up about your current premiums, benefits, and out-of-pocket costs


TRS Retirees, under and over 65:
Look at the last question and response.  This is our chance to provide feedback before our plans are set in stone.

I am submitting a second ORR to TRS this evening with a few other questions that have arisen.  This is how to file one.  I always go the email route.  Stay tuned for the responses I receive.

In the meantime, LET’S GET TO WORK!

*To get alerts when my new blog posts are published, simply look over to the right at "Followers" and click on "Follow."  It's that easy!

 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. (Photo by Linda Blackwell, McAllen)

Monday, February 24, 2020

Public-Ed Employees and Retirees: JOINING VOICES AND FORCES!



            This blog post is definitely a bullet-point post because so much has been happening that we all need to know about. Click on the links for more information on each topic.  Here goes:

· In case you didn’t hear, after heavy-duty public outcry, as well as pushback from several Texas legislators, TRS scrapped its plans to move into Indeed Tower in Austin at a cost of $326,000 per MONTH.  This, my TRS counterparts, is a PERFECT EXAMPLE of what can be done when we join VOICES and FORCES to fight!

· When are Texas legislators going to change the name—not the acronym, which would likely complicate things more than we care to imagine—of TRS?  It is one of the greatest misnomers in education in our state because it belies who its members are.  TRS is NOT just about teachers, though its official name is TEACHER Retirement System of Texas. TRS is actually the retirement system for our bus drivers, cafeteria workers, counselors, secretaries, librarians, maintenance staff, custodians, classroom aides, all other auxiliary staff, and administrators.  Which legislator can we count on to submit a bill for the 2021 Legislative Session to change this?  Who has ideas what TRS can stand for that will be true to ALL of the system’s members?  (I find it strange that even the TRS website is not clear about who its members are, rather having only this on its “About TRS” page (italics and bold mine)):  ​​​​​​The Teacher Retirement System of Texas is the largest public retirement system in Texas, serving more than 1.5 million people. Innovation, technology, and collaboration make the difference as we strive to continue earning your trust every day.  This may seem like a technicality; however, when I think of the effect making my health care UNaffordable and receiving no COLA has had on me, I can only imagine what it has been like for my colleagues who receive much less than I do in their pension checks.  Changing the name—again, not the acronym—for this system would serve as a constant reminder of who its members are.

· Both retiree organizations to which I belong—Texas AFT Retiree Plus and Texas Retired Teachers Association—have identified health care and a COLA (Cost-Of-Living Adjustment) as our top priorities in the 2020 General Election and in the 2021 Texas Legislative Session.  At the very least, the Texas Legislature needs to ROLL BACK the health-care plan for TRS retirees under the age of 65. It is a classic case of bait and switch. I retired in 2013 and signed on to TRS-Care.  You see, throughout my 29-year teaching career, I was promised affordable health care when I retired.  I paid $285 per month because I chose the high plan.  I had a $400 deductible and had affordable co-pays when I went to the doctor or I had a prescription to fill. I had budgeted for this before I retired, so like most of my retired colleagues, I did fine.  But that all changed during the 2017 Texas Legislative Session when Gov. Abbott, Lt. Gov. Patrick, and the majority of the Texas Legislature robbed us of the promise.  My premium was reduced to $200 per month because all of us under 65 (remember—TRS is NOT just about teachers) were forced into a high-deductible plan.  My deductible went from $400 to $1500, and I was stripped of my co-pays. I have to pay 100 percent of all medical costs (doctor/hospital visits AND prescriptions—unless the prescription is on a list of “standard, generic drugs) out of pocket until I reach the entire $1500.  For my colleagues who have a spouse on their plan, they must pay $3000 out of pocket—NOT $1500 per person—before their TRS insurance for retirees under 65 pays a penny.  And if this slap in the face were not enough, they made the mark from that slap indelible by keeping the insurance for retired LEGISLATORS more than affordable!  Their premium is $0 per month.  Their deductible (and check out their co-pays on this link, too) for health care is $0 and for prescriptions, $50 (I cannot find a link for this?). We are going to be LOUD AND CLEAR this November and during the 2021 Legislative Session because so many of us have stopped getting the medical exams we need because we cannot afford them.  ROLLBACK OUR HEALTH CARE!

· Only the Texas Legislature can authorize a COLA, and a pension fund must be actuarially sound before it can do so.  As of the 2019 Legislative Session, TRS has been made actuarially sound.  (Although it was long overdue, most of us remain grateful.)  As you may know, people on Social Security receive an automatic annual COLA.  Not so for TRS retirees.  The last COLA was provided in 2013.  It was a three-percent increase but was capped at an additional $100 per month, AND it was only provided to TRS members who retired before August 31, 2004.  Do you see what that means?  That means anyone who retired after August 31, 2004—16 years ago—has NEVER had a COLA!  Now take a look at the Consumer Price Index for that period. How in the world are retirees expected to make ends meet?  (Remember—in Texas, public-education employees are not allowed to pay into Social Security unless we have jobs outside of education, so the TRS pension is the only retirement income for most TRS members.)  I received a letter from TRS dated January 17, 2020, to let me know I would see a 30-CENT increase in my 2020 pension check, and I am not kidding! 

TRS retirees are calling upon our legislators to ROLLBACK our AFFORDABLE health care and to provide us with a long-overdue COLA during the 2021 Legislative Session.  All current candidates should be asked about this before the General Election in November, and all members of the Texas Legislature should be asked—by us and those who support us—if THEY are going to sponsor the bills to accomplish this!
There’s more to come soon.  Stay tuned….and STAY INFORMED!

In the next blog post, coming soon—The announcement last week from TRS that the providers will change January 1, 2021, for all of us on TRS-ActiveCare, TRS-Care Standard, and TRS-Care Medicare Eligible, as well as details about the federal Social Security Fairness Act.

 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. (Photo by Linda Blackwell, McAllen)

Monday, December 16, 2019

Texas Public-Ed Retirees Over 65 Also Suffering Due to Health Care Nightmare - PART II

NOTE:  This is the second in a multi-part series about the 2017 Texas Legislature and the devastating effects of their decision to create a healthcare nightmare for public-ed retirees across the state.  Part I focused on a retired teacher under the age of 65.  The follow-up to her story will likely be Part III; however, I am waiting for her situation to be resolved before her medication runs out in January.  And there are plenty more stories to tell.

            I read a November post by a woman named Margaret on the Retired Texas Educators with TRS/Retirement Concerns Facebook page.  (Just the fact that there is such a page speaks volumes about what the Texas Legislature has done to us.)  Here is Margaret's post:


              The post moved me to tears.  How in the world could a retired public-ed employee, promised throughout her career that she would have affordable health care in her retirement, be denied a walker she NEEDED due to multiple broken bones?  Who will answer for the two falls she took as a result of being denied this walker, the first causing her to break her right foot and damage the bones in the foot and ankle of the other leg severely damaged in the original fall, the second causing injury to one shoulder, both feet, one wrist, and her back?  I cannot even imagine the pain she must have endured then and must still be enduring daily. 
            “If I were the only one who has suffered needlessly because of delays and denials, I could accept it, but there are so many like me….Please pray for all retired teachers who are dealing with this and are too old and too whipped to fight this.  Why should I have to fight so hard to get equipment that would have prevented fractures and back and shoulder injuries?” 
            Inexcusable.  Heartbreaking. Shameful.  And true.  Why, indeed? 
            I reached out to Margaret, asking permission to share her story.  She immediately said yes, hoping that by sharing her story—and the stories of so many others—our legislators would finally listen and give us the health care they have so generously given THEIR retired counterparts, most of whom spent far less time in the Texas Legislature than we spent in classrooms, driving school buses, serving meals to students, cleaning school facilities….
            I asked Margaret how this all started.  She explained that after her original fall caused by stepping in an armadillo hole, she went to see an orthopedic surgeon.  Humana would not approve the boot the surgeon said she needed, despite three broken bones in her ankle.  Instead, she was told, she would need the nursing home--where she was sent after the fall--to provide her with a boot.  At the nursing home, Margaret was told they do not normally do this.  They ordered one, but it did not fit her properly. Later, she had surgery to set the broken bones.  The surgeon wanted her to spend the night; again Humana denied it.  She had to be taken back to the nursing home by ambulance, and she said she screamed in agony throughout the next day.  “I needed hospital care,” Margaret told me.
            Later, when she was released to go home, Margaret had a sprained wrist and shoulder and could not use a standard walker.  The orthopedic surgeon made it clear she needed a platform walker.  Humana denied it, their third denial for something Margaret’s surgeon insisted she needed.


            You know from Margaret’s post above what happened next.  Only after suffering two more devastating falls did Humana approve her platform walker.
            “No one should suffer like I did,” Margaret told me.
            And in one of her follow-up posts, she wrote:  “All the medical professionals told me to switch to Medicare and a supplement because of Humana’s horrible coverage.  I am switching.”
            This, Margaret, is your reward for dedicating your life to Texas students.

 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. (Photo by Linda Blackwell, McAllen)

Monday, December 9, 2019

Texas’ Retired Educators Begging for Affordable Health Care Part I – The Prescription Nightmare and a Letter from CVS Caremark


            Talk to retired public-education employees in Texas, and ask them if they expected to spend their retirement years begging for affordable health care.  Regardless of whether we expected it or not, that is exactly what we are doing today.
            When I retired in 2013, I had affordable health care through the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS).  I paid close to $300 per month for the high plan.  I had a $400 deductible and a co-pay of $25 or $30.  It was pretty much the promise I heard throughout my career, that even though my pay as a teacher was nothing to brag about, in retirement, I could expect a pension and affordable health care.
            Then the 2017 Texas Legislative Session happened.  During that session, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and the Texas Legislature forced me--and all of my fellow public-education retirees under the age of 65--into a health-care nightmare.  Suddenly, that affordable-health-care promise was shattered.  My monthly premium went down to $200 but for a high-deductible plan.  Instead of a $400 deductible, we now have a $1500 deductible.  Instead of a $25 or $30 co-pay, we now have to pay 100 percent of our health care and prescriptions (except a list of standard, generic drugs) out of pocket until we reach our entire deductible, and for married couples, that deductible is $3000—not $1500 for each but the full $3000. Until then, Aetna does not pay one penny.  Not one, unless it a procedure from the short list of preventive care.
            However, the Texas Legislature kept the health care for themselves and all other retired state employees—except public-ed retirees—much more than affordable.  You see, they still have a $0 monthly premium.  Zero.  They also have a $0 deductible for their health care, and a $50 deductible for their prescriptions.  Imagine our retired legislators having a $0 deductible and forcing public-ed retirees (not just teachers but everyone who worked in public-school districts across the state) to live with a $1500 deductible and NO CO-PAY!  Think of our bus drivers, our cafeteria staff, our custodians, our maintenance staff, and others whose pension checks are definitely less than ours.
            Things have gone from bad to worse over the past two years since our nightmare began.  Then, a few weeks ago, I received a message from one of my close friends about a letter she received from CVS Caremark. CVS Caremark handles the prescription end of our high-deductible Aetna plan. Here is that letter, with my friend's name and address redacted:




            My friend called CVS at the number provided in the letter, but the individual who answered the phone had no idea what she was talking about.  How in the world do you send out a letter like that—certain to upset individuals who take medications because they have to, not because they want to—and not first train your employees to be prepared for the calls?
            Finally, my friend spoke to someone who had “some” information about the changes.  Since my friend’s doctor will NOT allow her to take a generic form of Synthroid, he said, she would have to pay the difference between the generic form and the brand-name form.  (God forbid a Texas public-ed retiree should get a brand-name medication!)  She asked how much that difference would be, and he said he did not know.  (And the difference between the two is NOT applied to her deductible or her maximum out of pocket!)  Again, how in the world do you send out a letter, certain to cause anxiety, without being ready to provide customers the additional amount they can expect to pay?
            My friend called me, beside herself with worry over this added expense.  I wanted to try to help her, so I called the number on the letter; however, because I did not have her account information, I could never get past the frustrating non-human on the line.  So I contacted the Communications Department at TRS to get to the bottom of this.
            Lucky for me, Meaghan Bludau, health care analytics and engagement director at TRS, is the one who responded. She listened carefully to my story about what happened to my friend and then promised to contact CVS and have them contact my friend directly.  She also promised to research the situation and get back to me, which she did—the very next day. 
            This is what every TRS retiree who received a similar letter from CVS Caremark NEEDS to know, information that was not IN the letter but should have been:
1. You or your doctor’s office can contact CVS Caremark at 1-844-345-4577 to start the request for the exception.  The Customer Care Representative can fax the questionnaire directly to the doctor’s office or mail you a copy.  You will need to notify the Customer Care Representative if this is an URGENT request so he/she can speed up the process.
2.  Ask your doctor to complete the “exception paperwork”.  It is a short questionnaire that explains why you need the brand-name medication instead of the generic.  The turn-around time is 24-72 hours.
3.  CVS will communicate with you and your doctor about the outcome of the request.  The doctor will receive a fax 15-20 minutes after the approval.  You will receive a letter in the mail in 8-10 business days.

            Now you know the rest of the story!

NOTE:  In Part II, I will share the shameful, horrifying health-care story of a TRS retiree over the age of 65.  In Part III, I will tell you the latest on what has happened to my friend who received this letter from CVS.  And there will surely be additional parts to this story about Texas public-ed retirees being forced to beg for something we were promised.

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. (Photo by Linda Blackwell, McAllen)

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Current/Retired Firefighters, Police Officers, and Educators: We Need You in the Fight for Social-Security Fairness

            Fighting for Social-Security fairness has to be a national effort.  So said Congressman Vicente Gonzalez—my congressman—when I had a Facebook LIVE conversation with him August 22.  We need to unite our brothers and sisters who are current and retired firefighters, police officers, educators (which includes most of our bus drivers, secretaries, counselors, custodians, librarians, administrators, cafeteria staff, maintenance staff, social workers, and all others who worked, or who worked, in our public schools), and others affected by the Windfall Elimination Provision, which became law in 1983.  We also need the help and support of all those who support us in this effort.
            What is WEP?  If you don’t know, here is a simple fact sheet:





            Since 1983, firefighters, police officers, educators, and some government employees in these 15 states have been affected by WEP:

Alaska                                                                         Maine
California                                                                    Massachusetts
Colorado                                                                     Missouri
Connecticut                                                                 Nevada
Georgia (certain local governments)                           Ohio
Illinois                                                                         Rhode Island (certain local governments)
Kentucky (certain local governments)                        Texas
Louisiana

            What does it mean for us?   It means that because we do not--or did not--pay into Social Security while we were working as public servants--even though so many of us pay into SS working side jobs before retirement and/or working after retirement—we cannot receive our rightful SS benefits.
            I retired six-and-a-half years ago, and I am currently doing freelance/consulting work for five local companies.  I am a freelance writer/editor, a social-media manager, a sales/fundraising coordinator, and a college-essay coach.  Every time I receive a check from one of these companies, I immediately take 40 percent and place it in a savings account so I can pay the taxes on my earnings at the end of the year.  That includes SS.  I have my SS quarters already, yet because of WEP, I will not be able to collect the SS benefits I earned.  What I have to PAY into SS is not reduced, but what I will EARN is dramatically reduced.  I, along with my police officer, firefighter, educator, and other brothers and sisters , am penalized because I work in a state that chose not to collect SS and because I receive a pension I earned and paid into. How UNfair is this?  It’s time for us to fight to stop this insanity!
            September 27, U.S. Representative Richard Neal (D-MA), who serves as chair of the Ways and Means Committee, introduced the Public Servants Protection and Fairness Act (H.R. 4540).  In a press release put out that day by his staff, Chairman Neal said, “The WEP negatively affects nearly 2 million retired public servants across the country, including about 73,000 in Massachusetts.  Public employees like firefighters, teachers, and police officers should not miss out on the Social Security benefits they earned over decades of hard work. With this legislation, these valued members of our communities will have greater retirement security and peace of mind.”  As of October 31, 43 members of Congress have signed on as co-sponsors.
            According to Rep. Gonzalez, this is what MUST happen over the next year if we have any hope of H.R. 4540 passing:
  •     Current/retired police officers, firefighters, educators, and government employees in all 50 states need to come together to fight for those impacted by WEP.  We need to show the strength of our brotherhood and sisterhood.  We come together to fight for what’s right for all.
  •     We must, Rep. Gonzalez, said, “grow our circle.”
  •      ALL members of Congress must be lobbied.  As we know—and as Rep. Gonzalez reiterated—members of Congress care most when they hear from THEIR constituents.  Is YOUR member of Congress a co-sponsor of H.R.4540?  If yes, contact his/her office to say thank you.  If not, we need unions, organizations, and individuals from all 50 states to write letters, visit his/her office, and make phone calls saying, “I/We expect you to support Social Security Fairness!”  
  •        ALL presidential candidates and Congressional incumbents and candidates need to be asked where they stand on Social Security Fairness.
  •      In South Texas, Rep. Gonzalez said, we need to ask our Winter Texans to join us in our efforts by contacting members of Congress in your home states!  (I LOVE this idea!)

            Who’s in?  PLEASE contact me at cardis1022@aol.com ASAP if you are so we can start putting together a map and spreadsheet to show which unions/organizations/groups across the country are working for SOCIAL SECURITY FAIRNESS!!!


Side Note:  Currently, there is not an effort like this to fight against GPO, which affects the same group of individuals.  This should also be our fight!

Side Note #2:  Be sure to click on the links embedded in my post for more information!

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. (Photo by Linda Blackwell, McAllen)

Saturday, August 31, 2019

The Life of a Retired Educator in Texas


Dear Governor Abbott, Lt. Gov. Patrick, and the Texas Legislature,

WARNING!  What I am about to share with you is very personal and extremely difficult for me to discuss; however, this needs to be said.

            I suffer from anxiety. 

            It is actually one of the reasons I decided to retire.  The anxiety over things I could no longer control at work--relentless meetings, class sizes, loads of paperwork, lack of funding for even the basics in my classroom (my entire budget for my final year of teaching was approximately $67.  Yes, $67)—became overwhelming.  I would have worked 35-40 years if it was just about TEACHING because I miss my students to this day, but “teaching” is definitely no longer about teaching. 
            So back to anxiety.  I experienced a dramatic decrease in anxiety when I retired.  However, over the past year, it has been building, and recently, that overwhelming feeling of anxiety has been coursing through my body.  Anyone who suffers from anxiety will tell you it is not just mental.  It is definitely physiological, as well.
            At least 10 years ago, I was given a prescription for a generic anti-anxiety medication.  I didn't need it every day, but at those times when I felt anxiety creeping in, it made a BIG difference.  I have carried that same bottle with me all this time. (You are probably thinking it was expired and no longer good, but I assure you, that little 0.5 mg pill could "stop the coursing.")  This week, when I reached in my purse for it, knowing I still had 2-3 left, I discovered the bottle had opened in my purse, and because they are so small, they were crushed. 
            But the pathetic, shameful insurance you--Gov. Abbott, Lt. Gov. Patrick, and the 2017 Texas Legislature--gave all retired educators under 65 in Texas starting January 1, 2018, prefers for us to "visit" a virtual doctor through Teladoc rather than our own doctor.  I signed on Thursday to renew my prescription.  Well, sorry, the Teladoc doctor was unable to write a new prescription for me.  Guess what THAT did to my anxiety?
            You may be asking why I didn’t just call my family doctor here in McAllen and go for an office visit.  First of all, I don’t think I have seen her since our healthcare nightmare began, and let me tell you why.  Thanks to YOUR legislation in 2017, as of January 1, 2018, my deductible went from $400 to $1500.  As if that were not bad enough, I have to pay 100 PERCENT OUT OF POCKET—NO COPAY--until I reach that $1500, as if you know so many retired educators (and I include in this our bus drivers, custodians, secretaries, classroom aides, counselors, nurses, librarians, cafeteria staff, interpreters, and administrators who are all in the same boat) with $1500 readily accessible. For those of my retired colleagues under 65 whose spouse is on their insurance plan, they have to reach a $3000 deductible—not $1500 per person but $3000 total, OUT OF POCKET, before their insurance will pay a penny.  All of this thanks to you, Governor, Lt. Governor, and all members of the 2017 Texas Legislature who put this into motion and 2019 legislators who did not fix it.
            Meanwhile, all other retired state employees—including our retired legislators—are covered under a different plan that has a $0 deductible for medical care and a $50 deductible for prescriptions.  The difference between $0 and $1500 is $1500, and the difference between $50 and $1500 is $1450 OUT OF POCKET!  Oh, and they also have a $0 monthly premium.  Mine is $200 per month for pathetic insurance.  What does this say about equity in the State of Texas?           Back to why I haven’t gone to my own doctor, despite my rising level of anxiety.  For a year and a half now, I have avoided doctors as much as I can because of the out-of-pocket expense.  Nevertheless, this is what I am faced with at this moment:
  • Annual mammogram I cannot miss because my sister passed away from breast and lung cancer at the age of 50.  $615.98 – Negotiated to $277.19.  Paid by Aetna as it is preventive , but my surgeon had to make it a screening mammogram rather than a preferred diagnostic exam because a diagnostic mammogram is not covered.
  • Required annual thyroid sonogram because of multiple nodules – Cost for only the sonogram:  $981.72.  Aetna negotiated discount: $539.95.  MY 100-PERCENT OUT-OF-POCKET RESPONSIBILITY:  $441.77
  • Radiologist bill for thyroid sonogram:  Not yet received, but 100 PERCENT MY RESPONSIBILITY. 
  • Follow up with surgeon to discuss thyroid sonogram results:  $73.34--MY 100-PERCENT OUT-OF-POCKET RESPONSIBILITY
  • Dermatologist to check growth.  $65.14—MY 100-PERCENT OUT-OF-POCKET RESPONSIBILITY.  In-office procedure to remove the growth is scheduled for next week:  MY 100-PERCENT OUT-OF-POCKET RESPONSIBILITY.

           
            Then, yesterday, I received The Pulse, the TRS newsletter.  The top story?  “NEW:  TRS-Care Standard Will Offer Virtual Mental Health Services Starting Sept. 1, 2019.”  So I clicked on the link.  Please forgive me if disbelief and disgust immediately followed my initial feelings of hope.  The site reads: “Visits with Teladoc Mental Health providers are only available through video conference via a computer, smart phone or tablet”—because God forbid a retired educator in Texas should get any necessary help face-to-face.  And if that wasn’t enough, this came after:
  • Initial Psychiatry Session                                                        $185
  • Follow Up Psychiatry Session                                                $ 95
  • Therapy Session with Licensed Psychologist or Therapist     $ 85

OUT OF POCKET, of course!!!! But what “great” news. (Can you hear my sarcasm?)--all costs go toward my deductible!
           
            They should have added:
  • A simple refill of my anxiety medication                               N/A – SUFFER, TEXAS                                                                                                        RETIRED EDUCATORS!

             And suffering is what I am doing right now as I contemplate crossing the border to Mexico to get the medications there, something I have never done, but…
            Do you know what the irony in all of this is, Gov. Abbott, Lt. Gov. Patrick, and Texas legislators?  I feel quite certain there is a dramatic rise in the need for mental-health services and prescriptions for retired educators in Texas because of what YOU did to TRS-Care and to retired educators across the state.

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. (Photo by Linda Blackwell, McAllen)

Sunday, March 24, 2019

TRS MEMBERS— CALL/EMAIL COMMITTEE MEMBERS MONDAY, March 25!


We won’t have another chance for TWO MORE YEARS!

           Calling all active and retired teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, librarians, custodians, nurses, maintenance workers, classroom aides, secretaries, sign-language interpreters, counselors, police officers, administrators, and all other public-school employees!!!!  Remember: the Texas Legislature only convenes every two years, so when this session ends, they won’t be able to make any changes to our health care and pensions for TWO LONG YEARS!
           Tuesday morning at 8 a.m., the House Pensions, Investments and Financial Services Committee will meet.  In that meeting, they will discuss HB 9, which is OUR GREATEST HOPE at making TRS actuarially sound so those still working will be able to collect the pension you are earning now and those of us who are retired have hope of eventually receiving a long-overdue cost-of-living adjustment (COLA).  HB 9 is MUCH better for us than the Senate version, SB 12, and we need to fight for it!
            HB 9 calls for the state to increase their contribution to TRS from the current, low 6.8% (compared to their contribution to the retirement system for all other state employees AND for legislators, ERS, to which they contribute 9.5%) to 8.8% by September 1, 2025.  HB 9 does NOT seek an increase in contribution rate for already-cash-strapped TRS members and school districts, while the Senate version calls for an increased contribution from both.
            Additionally, HB 9 calls for a one-time supplemental payment (aka 13th check) up to $2400 for all current TRS retirees.  The Senate version also calls for this supplemental payment but caps it at $500.  While a one-time payment is not a COLA, by increasing the state’s contribution rate, TRS will become actuarially sound.  Only when this happens will we be able to receive a COLA.   
            So here is MONDAY’s CALL TO ACTION FOR ALL ACTIVE AND RETIRED TRS MEMBERS:

1.  IF you can be at the capitol Tuesday morning, Texas AFT Retiree+ is hoping to “PACK THE HOUSE.”
  The committee meeting begins at 8 a.m. in room E2.026. The time and room are subject to change, so check when you arrive to make sure it has not been moved.
(NOTE:  Please remember this is NOT about which organization is asking for what.  I am a member of the Texas Retired Teachers’ Association (TRTA) and a member of Texas AFT Retiree+.  This is about TRTA, Texas AFT Retiree+, Texas AFT, TSTA, TCTA, ATPE, and all other organizations coming together for the good of all of us!)

2.  IF you canNOT be at the capitol Tuesday morning, PLEASE call and/or email each member of the House Pensions, Investments and Financial Services Committee and let them know WE WANT HB 9!!!!!    Here is a quick chart with the phone number, email address, and Twitter handle of each committee member:



3.  Although this committee does not directly handle our healthcare, I, personally, urge everyone to let the committee members know when you call and/or email that WE EARNED HEALTH CARE AS GOOD AS ERS MEMBERS’ HEALTH CARE!  We canNOT wait two more years for them to ROLLBACK OUR HEALTH CARE!




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. (Photo by Linda Blackwell, McAllen)