By CURT WOODWARD/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - A combined health insurance system for Montana's public school districts died Friday after Senators agreed to an amendment that made the plan optional.
Sen. Don Ryan, D-Great Falls, a sponsor of House Bill 302, said that change effectively killed the measure, so he moved to indefinitely postpone it. The Senate agreed with a 25-22 vote.
Ryan said the bill was unacceptable as an optional plan because the proposed system's strength was based on including all school districts.
The bill would have combined some 230 different health plans into one pool with perhaps 16,000 members. Supporters said the change could bring a significant savings in administering the plans, but critics were hesitant to force schools into the plan.
The state's larger school districts have opposed a mandatory plan, afraid it would drive up their premiums for the benefit of smaller members.
Sen. Jim Elliott, D-Trout Creek, said requiring participation would be harmful to districts that have developed their own successful insurance plans.
Many school employees have gone without pay raises, Elliott said, to build a good system.
''Should those who have been prudent give up what they have for the common good?'' Elliott said.
Ryan removed his support from the measure after Park City Republican Sen. Bob Story's amendment allowing school districts to opt out of the pool passed 30-19.
''It goes to the heart of the bill,'' Ryan said. ''It will take away the ability to help the districts that need help.''
The Great Falls School District, Ryan said, initially opposed the insurance pool, but changed its position after looking at its own insurance program.
Ryan said the district has spent money from a special account to keep premiums down, and now is projecting a possible jump in monthly costs for employees.
Ryan said other large school districts would eventually run into the same problems.
''It's just a matter of time and things haven't caught up to them yet,'' he said.
But many, like Sen. Bill Glaser, R-Huntley, could not support the mandatory plan.
''If we drag them into this system, they will sue, and they will prevail. The idea that you're going to force everyone in just is more than I can handle,'' Glaser said.