Washington – In a newly established line of attack on the Affordable Care Act, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who leads the House Education Committee, is highlighting stories of school districts' plans to cut back on programs and part-time staffers to meet the demands of the health care law.
By mid- to late 2014, public and private employers will be deciding whether to cut employees' hours as a way to avoid the extra cost of providing health care benefits that comply with the new federal requirements.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires companies with at least 50 workers to provide health insurance to those working an average of 30 hours or more per week. Not doing so can result in fines of up to $3,000 per employee. Policies required under the law are more expansive than some now offered by some school districts.
"You're looking at dollars and cents, and you're going to have to make choices," Kline said during a recent committee hearing on Capitol Hill.
In addition, if employees lose hours or school programs are cut as schools juggle added expenses, the timing could allow otherwise vulnerable GOP House members to attack Democratic opponents on the issue just before next year's elections.
Democrats say the health care law will help hourly and adjunct employees who have no insurance and who would have little prospects of getting any without the ACA.
"It raises a really serious issue about ... who gets inside the system and who gets outside the system," said California Rep. George Miller, the lead Democrat on the House Education Committee.
The debate over the law's benefits is evident, even in Kline's district, which covers the southern Twin Cities suburbs.
The Hastings School District already plans to hire classroom aides, food service and transportation employees for 5.75-hour workdays instead of eight hours to avoid providing them insurance, Superintendent Timothy Collins said.
Collins declined to provide an estimate of how much the health care law's provisions might cost the district.
In the Northfield public schools, also in Kline's district, there are no plans to cut employee hours or jobs, said Molly Viesselman, human resources director for the district.
"We would definitely do what we could to maintain our employee hours and make sure people have insurance," Viesselman said.
Minnesota Department of Education officials could not provide an estimate on how many workers might be newly eligible for health care benefits under the law.
Many districts, including Northfield, already insure employees who work an average of 30 hours or more per week, said Bruce Lamprecht, president of the Minnesota Association of School Business Officials.
When surveying districts this fall, the organization still found "a certain amount of angst and uncertainty" about implementing the law, said Lambrecht, also the director of business services for Marshall public schools in western Minnesota.
Higher education leaders share that anxiety.
The employer mandate could affect the health care costs for nearly 5,000 employees, primarily adjunct faculty, in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
"Determining that impact has been a challenge because the dust has not yet settled on the path forward for the ACA rollout," said Doug Anderson, the director of communications for the state college system.
University of Minnesota officials declined to comment, citing union contracts related to the health law set to be reviewed by the Board of Regents in December.
Fight to the finish
The aftermath of the federal shutdown left Republicans and their poll numbers reeling. A coordinated effort to keep the health care law's problems on the front burner is part of the GOP strategy to bounce back.
Legislation highlighting the troubles is emerging from several committees, although with the chamber set to adjourn for holiday recess on Dec. 13, there may not be enough time left on the House calendar.
House Republicans have voted more than 40 times to repeal or defund the act, a vast overhaul of federal health care laws.
The law requires U.S. citizens to carry federally approved health insurance policies, but many also will get tax subsidies to help with costs. The law forbids insurance companies from discriminating against applicants based on pre-existing conditions or gender, allows parents to cover their children on their policies until age 26 and eliminates the lifetime coverage caps that were part of some plans.
To avoid the perception that they're taking yet another crack at defunding the law, committee leaders are narrowing their scope this time around.
"We must be mindful that federal policies unrelated to education can still burden classrooms," Kline said.
Congressional Democrats are unearthing their own anecdotes to counter Republican attacks, but House Republicans predict further flaws and delays will emerge as the health care law rollout continues.
"There are so many unanswered questions at the federal level," said Superintendent Daniel Bittman of the Sauk Rapids-Rice School District near St. Cloud.
"We absolutely support the idea and the intent of the law, but for school districts it creates an absolute challenge," he said.
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell