Insurance Switch and Claims Drive Near-9% Hike in Westport School Budget

The Westport Board Education met on Thursday night.

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WESTPORT – Superintendent Thomas Scarice blamed “unprecedented” levels of health insurance claims as a key driver in a proposed 8.83 percent school budget hike, warning that they would also be a hindrance to staffing requests.

In 2022, the school district switched from a state insurance plan to a high-deductible plan with Aetna to avoid stark rate projections coming from the state. But two years later, Scarice said, the district is now bracing itself for a 40-45 percent increase in health insurance rates under the private plan.

Released last week, Scarice’s proposed 2024-2025 budget totals $148.3 million – a more than $12 million increase from the current budget. And the expected insurance budget totals almost $25.8 million – about $8 million more than the current year.

Altogether, the employee benefits makeup 5.93 percent of the 8.83 percent budget increase.

While the district did save costs in the first two years using the private health plan, Scarice said in his summary that an “unprecedented level of high claims” by staff was driving the projected boost.

“Sadly there are very difficult stories behind these claims which impact our employees, but the claims nonetheless have led to a 45.5% increase to our health benefits budget line,” Scarice said.

Westport’s 45.5 percent jump from the current insurance budget far surpasses proposed increases in surrounding towns, such as Fairfield’s 6.24 percent increase, Norwalk’s seven percent and Weston’s 6.2 percent.

In a Thursday email to CT Examiner, Scarice said the exponential increase meant he was unable to include personnel requests in his budget, which include two assistant principals at the elementary level, a high school math coach, a communications specialist, a part-time health teacher, one curriculum coordination support staff member for our curriculum coordinators and a project coordinator.

“If the health care budget was carved out, the rest of the budget is only a 2.9% increase,” Scarice said. “In order to keep the rest of the budget this low, we did not include the addition of personnel requests that were considered.”

An expensive switch

Although the district enjoyed an eight percent decrease in health care costs when they switched to Aetna in 2022 and a 14 percent cap on rate increases last year, the 40-45 percent estimated jump in costs for Westport schools far surpasses the state’s latest projections.

In early 2023, the State Partnership Plan, which provides state employee health insurance to some school boards and municipalities, was projecting a ten percent rate increase beginning July 2023 to offset losses from the year prior, when the state paid $37 million more in claims than it collected in premiums as many employees deferred their health care during the pandemic.

At time, Scarice said in an interview with CT Examiner that he was glad that the district’s switch to a high-deductible plan allowed the board to avoid the looming state increase. 

But according to the Office of the State Comptroller, the actual increase for enrolled groups starting July 2023 was actually 7.2 percent. And for July 2024, a spokesperson told CT Examiner, the state is projecting a “very modest” increase between one and five percent.

And while delayed health care once boosted state rates, the spokesperson for the Comptroller said utilization of the state plan had dropped and pharmaceutical costs were down, keeping estimations low.