School districts that do not offer health insurance to full-time employees will need to change next year, under a phased-in requirement of the federal Affordable Care Act.

While the exact impact on most area districts has yet to be determined, at least one district, Phillips-based School Administrative District 58, will have to insure at least 24 additional employees or face a penalty of nearly $300,000.

While some districts are unaffected by the health insurance requirement, others may have to find the money to offer insurance for educators, coaches and full-time substitute teachers who are currently uninsured.

Teacher unions are unsure how the changes will affect future labor negotiations, one of several variables about the way in which the law will be implemented.

Under the act, most school districts in Maine are defined as “large employers,” those with 50 or more workers.

More than 96 percent of large employers across the nation offer health insurance, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But area school districts are among those who do not insure all of their workers.

In January 2014, they will be required to provide affordable health insurance to each employee working 30 or more hours.

The issue, about which much is still unknown, is taking on a sense of urgency for anxious district administrators beginning work on next year’s budget cycle, which includes the early 2014 deadline.

Different costs for different districts

School districts don’t agree on what the effects of the new law will be.

School Administrative District 58 administrators say they will be hard-hit by the change.

That district, which operates schools in Avon, Eustis, Kingfield, Phillips and Strong, will have to add 24 employees to the insurance rolls, or face a stiff penalty.

Currently, the district provides coverage for 152 of its 176 full-time employees, according to Luci Milewski, business manager.

“My understanding is if we do not offer it to those people who are eligible, the penalty is about $2,000 per year, per employee that is eligible,” she said.

With 176 eligible employees, the first 30 of which are exempted from the penalty assessment, the total cost for choosing not to insure would be $292,000.

“Obviously, we want to offer the insurance to stay within the law,” Milewski said.

The district will also have to decide whether to make the insurance option affordable for their employees, a term the law defines as costing no more than 9.5 percent of an employee’s income.

If the plan is not offered at an affordable rate, the district will have to pay a penalty of $3,000 for each worker who decides to forgo the school’s plan in favor of insurance offered in an exchange system that will be established that year.

“Do we choose to make it affordable or do we choose to pay the penalty per employee?” Milewski asked. “These are the questions that are going to affect every large employer in the state.”

While some superintendents say the unknown details could have an impact on nearly every district in the state, others see clearly defined local effects that range from negligible to dramatic.

Many districts already provide insurance to all of their full time employees, as is the case in Alternative Organizational Structure 92′s schools in Waterville, Vassalboro and Winslow.

“A lot of people have asked about this but I don’t believe this is going to be a serious impact for us,” said Superintendent Eric Haley. “We have in all of our negotiated contracts a lower threshold than 30 hours for health care coverage.”

Business Manager Chris Pottle said she doesn’t foresee an effect on the Mt. Blue School District, which includes Farmington, Wilton and seven other Franklin County towns.

“I think everyone that we have that is eligible, we already provide coverage for,” she said.

At Regional School Unit 18, which includes Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney, the district currently offers full health insurance to employees who work at least 32.5 hours a week, according to Frank Brown, president of the RSU 18 Education Association.

Brown said he was unsure as to whether any employees work between 30 and 32.5 hours at the district; the office of the superintendent was not able to compile that information by press time.

David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education, said he hadn’t heard anything from school districts to make him think that conforming to the new law is an issue for most districts in the state.

Substitute teachers, coaches, ed techs

Milewski said most of the uncovered employees hold a position called Ed Tech I, the least-specialized of three different Ed Tech designations.

Most districts already provide coverage to all of their ed techs, but Dean Baker, superintendent of Fairfield-based School Administrative District 49, said there are groups of potentially affected employees that districts may not be thinking about.

Substitute teachers and co-curricular coaches might qualify for health insurance coverage under the law, Baker said. He also expressed concern that tracking which employees are eligible will add more costs in clerical hours for the district, which includes Albion, Benton and Clinton.

“The devil’s going to be in the details on this,” Baker said. “The penalties could really clobber us.”

While he supports the law’s aims, Baker is wary.

“I think it’s a great goal that everybody in society have health coverage but I think we’re going to find that it’s not free and the cost is going to be paid by people who haven’t picked up the bill,” he said.

The bottom line, Baker said, is that there are still many questions that have yet to be answered.

“We don’t know how much it will cost,” he said. “I think about everybody else is in the same boat.”

President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in March of 2010. After a stiff challenge from Republican leaders, it was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.

While many of the changes have already gone into effect, other components will be implemented in 2013 and 2014.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287

mhhetling@centralmaine.com