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Originally published Monday, April 2, 2012 at 4:44 PM

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A lesson in public-school health coverage from Oregon

Oregon made the change to consolidate health-insurance plans for its public school employees in 2007 and is saving about $45 million a year. If Washington made the same change — and it should — the state auditor estimated it could save as much as $90 million.

Seattle Times Editorial

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ONE of the issues hung up in the Legislature has been the bill to create statewide health insurance plans for public-school employees. The Seattle Times editorial board supports this idea. As evidence that it saves money and that employees are happy with it, we offer the experience of Oregon.

In 2007 the Oregon Legislature created the Oregon Educators Benefit Board, of which four in 10 members represent unions and the rest school boards, school districts and policy experts. The Oregon law set coverages and premiums, leaving unions free to negotiate the share of premiums paid by the employee.

The Oregon board reduced 96 different insurance plans to 11. It put the plans out to bid, and signed multiyear contracts with Kaiser, Providence Health Plans and several others. Oregon's law requires most school districts to join the plan unless they have a comparable or better deal. Three and a half years into the program, three-quarters of the public school employees in Oregon are in and 14 of the 17 community colleges are in.

The board's surveys show that nearly 9 in 10 who have used the service are happy with it. The Oregon Education Association is happy with it. A report by Towers Watson, consultants, estimated a year ago that the Oregon plan was saving employers and employees $45 million a year.

In Washington, State Auditor Brian Sonntag has estimated consolidating the 300 different insurance plans here could save as much as $90 million a year — double the Oregon figure.

The proposal here, Senate Bill 6442, is sponsored by Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens and one of the "roadkill" caucus of Democratic moderates. The bill is opposed by Premera Blue Cross and the Washington Education Association, which have had a no-bid contract for 50 years. The union has some of its members stirred up. We see teachers with signs saying, "Hands Off Our Benefits."

This is not about taking away benefits. As the Oregon Education Association says on its Web page, "Smart shoppers know that when you buy in bulk you save money." It is a good idea, and this state's legislators should support it.

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