For the past nine years, Anne Walden has enjoyed her job of driving a school bus through rural areas of McDuffie County.
“I absolutely love it,’’ says Walden, 60. “I love my kids.”
But it’s still a job, and Walden is clear about the underlying reason why she does it: health insurance.
“We don’t make any money’’ compared to what other occupations pay, Walden said Monday, noting that her income is $8,800 a year. “Most drivers drive for the benefits.’’
But the health insurance that Walden gets through the state employee and teachers plan would end at the end of the year, if Gov. Nathan Deal’s budget proposal is ultimately approved.
Deal’s budget plan would eliminate health coverage for 11,500 “non-certificated’’ school personnel who work fewer than 30 hours a week, including school bus drivers and cafeteria workers.
The proposal has generated broad concern among lawmakers and health advocates.
And this week, a key teacher advocacy group that made waves in 2014 by backing changes to the State Health Benefit Plan has thrown its support behind preserving the insurance options for the school workers.
Gov. Deal last week said it’s a matter of fairness to other state employees who work part time but don’t qualify for benefits.
“I think more and more people are asking the question, ‘Why is it that people who are working less than 30 hours a week were being able to participate when some of our own state employees could not,’ ” said Deal, according to a WABE article.
The cut would save the state more than $100 million per year. According to the Department of Community Health, the coverage for “non-certificated’’ school workers ran a deficit of $135 million in fiscal 2014.
The State Health Benefit Plan currently covers more than 630,000 state employees, teachers, other school personnel, retirees and dependents.
The group Teachers Rally to Advocate for Georgia Insurance Changes (TRAGIC), which helped push for changes in the state health plan last year, said Sunday that it opposes the elimination of insurance for these school workers.
“Many of these essential employees make little in the way of salary, but maintain these positions for health insurance benefits,’’ said a TRAGIC press release. “The state, by removing insurance coverage for part-time non-certificated employees, is simply shifting the tax burden again to the local districts that are already cash‐strapped and having a hard time making their budgets work.”
Some school districts are having difficulty now finding qualified bus drivers, TRAGIC said.
After hearing a presentation on the insurance cut last week, state Rep. Bill Werkheiser (R-Glennville) said, according to the AJC: “I predict if they pass it, 80 to 90 percent of the drivers in rural Georgia won’t drive.”
McDuffie County, west of Augusta, has a population of slightly more than 20,000.
School bus driving works well for Walden, she said, because of her home situation. “I’m raising a handicapped grandchild.”
Some drivers have limited options in a tight job market. “A lot of people who drive buses are older,’’ Walden said, but “too young for Medicare,” the government insurance program for people 65 and older.
She currently pays $385 a month for insurance for herself and her husband, who works in construction. She considers that a good deal.
The job is more than just driving from point to point, Walden said. “A lot of these children talk to us’’ about their issues, she said. And unexpected problems can crop up. Sometimes children get sick, and sometimes no parent is at home when the child needs to be dropped off.
The bus driver insurance situation “affects the children we transport,’’ Walden said. “A lot of families don’t have transportation.”
Bus drivers are collecting keys to send to the governor’s office and legislators, Walden said.
Community Health officials last week suggested that many of these workers will be able to get subsidized coverage through the health insurance exchange. It’s not clear to Walden if her family would qualify for subsidies, and she wonders whether exchange coverage would have higher deductibles than her current insurance. That’s a major concern for someone with a modest income.
If she loses her benefits, Walden said, “I will have to go elsewhere to get another job.”