With just two weeks left in the Texas Legislature's special session, the House is slowly but surely making its way through Governor Greg Abbott's list of 20 legislative priorities, having passed a bill Tuesday addressing the underfunded health care system for retired teachers.
The House voted 130 to 10 to boost the Teacher Retirement System–CARE program by $212 million, coming out of the state's emergency Rainy Day Fund. The one-time boost is expected to bring down the high costs of deductibles for retired teachers under the age of 65, who don't yet qualify for federal Medicare assistance, and reduce their out-of-pocket costs. The move comes after the Legislature passed a bill during the regular session that will do exactly the opposite, making changes to the state-run Teacher Retirement System that would cause health care costs for retired teachers under 65 to shoot up by thousands each year.
Tim Lee, executive director of the Texas Retired Teachers Association, said that House Bill 20 would provide a sliver of much-needed relief for these teachers — if it becomes law. HB20 will now head to the Senate, which has already said it would not support financing the TRS with the Rainy Day Fund and already passed its own version of the bill using a different financing method.
"This health insurance went through major changes in the regular session, and a lot of our members, when you’re living on a fixed income — especially the fixed income of a retired teacher — it’s just really hard to make ends meet," Lee said. "Most TRTA members are less concerned about the method of finance [legislators choose] than they are about seeing the money relieve them of the high costs of health care."
Lee says that, because of high deductibles, retired teachers are calling TRTA all the time with dilemmas such as, should I go see my doctor, or should I pay for my medicine? Because they can't afford to do both, Lee said. Lee estimated that if HB20 — or the Senate version — became law, deductibles would be cut in half.
"There’s a quarter of a million people in this health care program," he said. "You’ve got people as young as 55 and people as old as 105. We've got retirees with adult disabled children, some that are disabled themselves or have a chronic disease that caused them to leave the classroom; cancer patients, cancer survivors, cancer medicine being paid for. It’s a very troubling situation."
Of Governor Abbott's 20 priority items for the special session, this is only the fifth that the House has passed; the others were four items related to studying the state's alarming maternal mortality rate, increasing reporting requirements for abortions, a bill related to rules for removing trees, and extending the lifeline of various state agencies. That's compared to 20 bills addressing 18 priority items that the Senate has already zipped through.
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The leaders of each chamber, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus, have taken polar-opposite approaches to the special session, with Patrick ramming through Abbott's agenda and earning plenty of gold stars from the governor, and Straus taking his sweet time and largely ignoring hyper-partisan bills like the bathroom bill. What this means: It's all going to come down to a grand finale as the clock continues to tick, as the Senate ends up just twiddling its thumbs, waiting and seeing what Straus will do with Patrick's pet items, the bathroom bill and a bill to restrict property taxes. All of this fun stuff is bound to happen at the last minute.
Abbott has even said he will be "keeping a list" of how everyone votes on his priorities and will "call people out" who let him down — a jab largely directed at Straus's more moderate and stubborn House.
Meanwhile, nervous teachers will be watching to see how legislators vote, too.
"They’re getting a little anxious with only two weeks left [in the session]," Lee said. "If both chambers decide to dig in their heels, we may find ourselves in a position where nothing happens, and that could just be the worst possible scenario."