The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

January 14, 2014

School officials mull behavioral benefits for employees

By Kim West

— County school officials are exploring whether to add behavioral health benefits for the system’s approximately 1,100 employees for the next budget year beginning Oct. 1.

Behavioral health benefits range from Employee Assistance Program services and mental health care to substance abuse counseling and strategies for stress management.

An EAP offers confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals and follow-up services to employees who have personal or work-related issues, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Limestone Superintendent Dr. Tom Sisk said a rising number of school districts statewide are examining the additional benefits for their employees.

“Many offer benefit packages above and beyond the state’s requirements for benefits,” Sisk said during the Jan. 7 school board meeting. “It’s a trend a number of districts are looking to offer.”

Sisk said he would prefer the school system pay the premium for the extra benefits, providing another way to take care of employees.

“It would be an investment of $30,000 to $40,000 a year at $1.50 to $2 a month per employee,” he said. “It would help employees who are having life issues that will impact their work.”

Carol Pinkerton, director of new client business development for American Behavioral in Birmingham, recently presented the school board with an overview of available services.

“This is a benefit that addresses everyday life issues (because) you take what happens at work home with you, and you take what happens at home to work,” she said.

Pinkerton said financial strain, being a caretaker for a family member, substance abuse and mental illness are all examples of domestic stressors that often get pushed aside by educators as they focus on the school year.

“When you sweep (issues) under the rug and you don’t pay attention to them, they become issues at work,” she said.

When asked by board member Earl Glaze about the potential for out-of-pocket expenses, Pinkerton said an EAP covers three visits and three visits for each of the employee’s qualified dependents in a benefit year.

“Above three visits, that would move into your medical,” she said. “The EAP is not a clinical diagnosis. We’re just talking about an issue with a licensed (professional). There are also unlimited telephone visits, as long as they’re scheduled in advance.”

Sisk said ideally a decision could be reached in time for the benefits to be factored into the 2015 fiscal budget.