Bad Teachers' Union Keeps Plastic Surgery Rider in Contract

SERVING PHILADELPHIA, NEWTOWN SQUARE AND NEARBY AREAS IN PENNSYLVANIA

When Cameron Diaz's character from last summer's Bad Teacher wanted breast augmentation, she embezzled funds from the school's fundraising car wash and stole the answer key so her students could cheat on standardized tests. But what she should have done is applied for a job in Buffalo, where the Buffalo Teachers Federation (BTF) negotiated a contract that included full coverage for plastic surgery procedures. In 2009, this amounted to $9 million in expenses for plastic surgery, and although fewer people are taking advantage of the rider now, it still costs the district $5.2 million a year. The union has promised that the rider will be removed from the next contract negotiated with the school district, but it's unclear when that will be. The teachers have been working with an expired contract since 2004, but unlike many unions the BTF has little to gain from coming back to the table. A 1982 state law known as the Triborough Amendment allows public employees to keep working under the terms of an expired contract until a new agreement is reached. Since the old contract includes yearly 2.5% "step increases" that went into effect in 2007, the teachers' union has no real incentive to return to the negotiating table. To be fair to the BTF, the plastic surgery rider has "really evolved a lot differently than it was intended," in the words of the district's director of labor relations who worked to keep the rider in place in a 1996 negotiation. The rider has been in place since at least 1972, a time at which cosmetic surgery was relatively rare and reconstructive surgery was the primary function performed by plastic surgeons. At the time, barely 40,000 women had breast implants. Now seven times that many women get breast implants every year, and the overall number of cosmetic procedures has likely increased by more than ten times, though reliable statistics do not exist for procedures performed before 1992. The intent of the rider can be seen when we look at the 1996 negotiations that saved it. At the time, the district and the BTF were planning to cut the rider, but a teenage daughter of a district employee was thrown through a windshield during a car accident, requiring extensive reconstruction. It seemed inhumane to cut the benefit at that time, so negotiators kept it in with an understanding that it would be removed during the next negotiation. The problem is not only with the rider itself, but with a recent surge in usage. Cost for the rider skyrocketed from $1 million in 2004, the year the contract expired, to $9 million in 2009, 9% of the district's total spending on health benefits for current and retired employees. And nine out of ten procedures paid for were skin treatments such as chemical peels and laser hair removal. In 2009, a relatively small number of employees were abusing the system. Only 500 employees took advantage of the rider, amounting to an average of $18,000 in elective procedures per employee in 2009. Doctors are also guilty of abusing the system. Although expenses increased ninefold, the number of procedures only tripled, so the per-procedure costs have gone up considerably. Six plastic surgery practices in the area ran ads in a recent issue of the union newsletter, and one doctor has billed the district for $4 million in procedures. In 2011, Governor Cuomo decreased the amount of state aid to the district by more than $24 million. Although school officials described the cut as "devastating," the effect could be softened considerably if the teachers' union would just come back to the table and negotiate a new contract. Even at the current reduced cost, the plastic surgery rider costs about the same as 100 teachers' salaries. The union was offered that exact bargain: save 100 teachers jobs in exchange for suspending the plastic surgery rider for one year. The union declined, and as a result 104 teachers were cut from the payroll in August. Like many teachers' unions, the BTF claims to care about children, now it's time for them to put their money where their augmented lips are and sacrifice this rider for the sake of education.