WEST ORANGE, NJ — Ever since retiring from the West Orange School District in 2008 after 25 years of teaching, Margo Sokolow paid into the Horizon Dental Option Plan offered by the district to its retired employees in need of dental insurance. And for the past eight years, all was well. The program covered nearly every form of dental care Sokolow and her husband needed, with the exception of implants. Plus, though she had to spend extra since she went to a nonparticipating dentist, the $2,500 per person she had to pay for the plan was the right price for her.
Overall, Sokolow had no complaints.
“This was a great plan, and I was happy to pay for it,” Sokolow told the West Orange Chronicle in a March 10 phone interview. “I was very grateful to the West Orange School System that they allowed the retired teachers to do this.”
So Sokolow she was quite distressed to receive a letter from Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky informing her that the district would cease offering her program and all other retiree health and dental plans July 1. Part of her concern had to do with the fact that she would soon be without dental insurance for the first time in nearly a decade, but that issue was quickly remedied. She said she has already started making arrangements to receive coverage under one of the state’s retiree dental plans, though she does not yet know how much it will cost her. She said she expects it will be cheaper than her previous plan offered through the school, though it will probably not cover as much.
But what really disturbed Sokolow was the fact that the letter did not specify why the district was discontinuing its practice of offering the program to its retired employees. After almost 30 enjoyable years of service to the school system as a music teacher, during which time she started the strings program at West Orange High School that now spans multiple orchestras, she said she is disappointed the district would basically cast her off along with other district retirees without the courtesy of an explanation.
Sokolow said she always felt appreciated by the district — until now.
“I was very angry and then upset,” Sokolow said, saying she had called the superintendent’s office for answers, but Rutzky had not responded to her as of press time. “My question to the superintendent is ‘Why?’ Because I’m paying for it — it’s not like they’re giving it to me for nothing.
“I would appreciate an explanation,” she continued, adding that she hopes Rutzky “would have maybe a bit more respect for teachers who’ve given a lot of their lives to the school system and are willing to pay for these excellent plans. And if it means a bit of an increase because of the times, let us make the decision whether we want to continue or not. Just don’t terminate it.”
In a statement to the Chronicle, Rutzky stressed that the district has “great respect and appreciation for our current and retired employees.” The problem is that the continuous rise in health care costs has made budgeting within the 2-percent cap very challenging, he said.
“In preparation for the 2016-2017 preliminary budget, we desperately needed to look at all financial options that minimally affected the classroom,” Rutzky said.
As a result, Rutzky said the district turned to the health and dental plans it offered to its retired employees when its insurance broker pointed out that virtually no other school district provides continued coverage to retirees. The programs were having a “detrimental impact” on the district’s experience rating, causing insurance rate increases for current employees and in the district budget. The experience rating refers to the amount of loss through insurance claims a covered entity experiences compared to what similarly insured parties experience.
Since retirees have federal and state options for obtaining benefits, the superintendent said he recommended that the West Orange Board of Education stop the practice of providing health and dental plans to retirees through the district plan, an idea that the board unanimously approved.
With retiree coverage ending July 1, Rutzky pointed out that retired employees under 65 can obtain health benefits through the Affordable Care Act, while those older than 65 can get them through Medicare. As for dental benefits, he said there are many carrier options they can look into in addition to state dental plans for retirees.
Mark Maniscalco, president of the West Orange Education Association, did not respond to a request for comment.