SANTA FE – As frontline workers during the pandemic, educators have continued to put their health on the line in service to New Mexico students and families, despite rising health insurance premiums that have diminished their ability to afford health care for themselves and their families.

HB 102, a bill now before the Legislature, would bring us a great deal closer to rectifying this wrong by largely eliminating health care premium costs for educators in our state. The bill would require that school districts cover 100% of the cost of health insurance premiums up to $10,000, and at least 60% of the cost greater than $10,000. This bill, coupled with increased funding in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s proposed budget for the 2023 legislative session, would bring individual, two-party and family insurance rates down to an affordable level for all education employees serviced by the New Mexico Public Schools Insurance Authority (NMPSIA) and Albuquerque Public Schools, from classroom teachers to educational assistants, cafeteria workers, custodial staff and bus drivers.

As president of NEA-NM, I have heard from thousands of educators across the state about prohibitively expensive health insurance. Members understand that rising medical costs require increases to health insurance rates but are puzzled over the disproportionately high costs they face compared to other state employees. Health insurance costs for educators outpaced wage increases for 10 years up until last year, and New Mexico educators continue to pay, on average, $3,000 more per year on health insurance than other public employees.

We have seen full-time employees with decades of experience in education that are unable to afford medical insurance coverage. They are forced to gamble with their health and the health of their families, hoping that they don’t get sick. But hope doesn’t replace an affordable insurance plan. Shannon Facka in Fruitland, New Mexico, is one such employee: “After 17 years on the job, I am barely making it. I can’t even afford the health insurance, and I have been without it the past two years,” she told NEA-NM. This legislation would also level the playing field for educators, like Shannon, who live in rural communities, where it is more challenging to find doctors and medical services and where insurance rates are higher than those for educators in Albuquerque.

Ending the unreasonable health insurance burden placed on educators is also central to our state’s efforts to address the educator shortage that has led to the chronic understaffing and ballooning class sizes that are now the norm in New Mexico schools. While recent salary increases for educators were a welcome change – and helped reduce the educator vacancy rate by 34% – health insurance premiums must be addressed if we are to entice the highest-quality professionals to enter and persist in the education profession. One educator I spoke to this week, who recently left Las Cruces Public Schools, said that, if passed, this legislation could lure him back. HB 102 is more than a reprieve for educators; it is a ray of hope for the nearly 18,000 students affected by the 700 teacher vacancies across the state.

 Mary Parr-Sánchez is a former middle school social studies teacher and the 98th president of NEA-New Mexico. NEA-NM is a state affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest professional employee organization.