Hawaii teachers union files lawsuit over health plan

Joan Lewis
Joan Lewis
Will Okabe
Will Okabe
Wray Jose
Wray Jose

By Duane Shimogawa - bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A public school teacher files a class-action lawsuit against Governor Linda Lingle.

It's on behalf of more than 15,000 active and retired educators, over a switch in health care benefits.

The lawsuit seeks to prevent the state from forcibly transferring teachers' health benefit plans from what they already have to one that they call insolvent and mismanaged.

Gail Kono is a retired special ed teacher who taught for three decades at various schools around Oahu.

She, along with thousands of other teachers have been covered under the Voluntary Employees' Beneficiary Association trust or VERBA.

It was established by the teachers' union in 1985 and they're fighting to keep this coverage.

"I feel that it's only fair to expect that after teaching for over 30 years, I've dedicated my time with the kids that I'm given what was promised to me on my medical plan," Kono, who's the plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The firm representing the teachers, Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing say the reason why they filed this lawsuit is simple, the governor has told the legislature that the EUTF is insolvent, it is at best teetering on insolvency.

The EUTF or Employer-Union Benefits Trust Fund takes care of nearly 70,000 other active and retired state employees.

"I don't think it's fair to our teachers, because it's not the teachers fault for creating a system with the VEBA Trust that's very healthy and we're able to provide good medical coverage for our members," HSTA president Wil Okabe said.

And the teachers feel they'll come out on top in this lawsuit because of very similar case they won earlier this year.

In that case, the State Supreme Court established precedent that health benefits are a constitutionally protected requirement for retirement benefits.

That is, once an employee has vested interest in a certain level of health benefits.

"What is most frustrating to our members is that they know that it actually costs the state less," Teacher and VEBA Trustee Joan Lewis said.

A spokesman for Governor Lingle says she will not comment on pending litigation.

"It's hard enough to be able to recruit and keep teachers and if we drive teachers out of their VEBA program and force them to pay higher premiums and get less benefits for it, then it's going to make that process harder," Moanalua High teacher Wray Jose said.

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