Amonth after taking over the East Baton Rouge Parish public schools, Superintendent Bernard Taylor decided to spend some of his political capital and came up a vote short.

On July 19, after almost six hours of debate, the School Board voted 5-4 on Taylor’s second attempt to cancel supplemental health insurance for almost 2,700 retired employees and instead move them all to Medicare. The move, he said, would have saved the school system an estimated $8.7 million in 2013 and perhaps more money in the future.

Under the School Board’s rules, Taylor needed six votes to pass the measure. Board President Barbara Freiberg and board member David Tatman were out of town, taking with them, perhaps, that extra vote.

July 19 was the deadline given by the private company lined up to oversee the transition of retirees to Medicare-only coverage.

The victory won by retirees who fought to keep coverage as is will likely be short-lived.

Board members saythe proposal will likely come back next spring, as the school system looks for ways to keep its employee medical insurance program in the black.

July 19 was the fifth time in a month the School Board debated the proposed Medicare shift.

Taylor’s first attempt to get board approval was on July 9, but he was out of town that night. That turned out to be a mistake. That night, the board unexpectedly rejected the proposed shift.

Taylor later said the fierce opposition, which arose seemingly overnight, caught him by surprise. Retired educators, absent from previous debates on the topic, emerged suddenly and in force. Elected board members, unlike Taylor, face an electorate where more of the elderly vote than younger residents, many of whom are active teachers who in 2013 will pay more for medical coverage unless a shift is made.

Taylor returned to town on July 12. Undaunted, Taylor called four informational meetings in three days. Almost 900 people attended those meetings, and some, though by no means all, of those who attended appeared to have come around to the idea.

The annual premiums for the three Medicare plans available are $0 for Medicare Advantage, $0 for Medicare Advantage Fee for Service, and $249 for Medigap, and all three have no deductibles. The East Baton Rouge Parish school system’s “Core” plan, most-used by these retirees, has a $409 annual premium and a $600 deductible.

The Medicare plans also pay for 100 percent of all hospitalization, unlike the school system’s supplemental retiree insurance. The Medicare plans are less generous, though, when it comes to prescription drugs.

Some retirees expressed fear. They’ve been hearing scary stories about President Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act and about the future of Medicare. They preferred the status quo.

The board will address the issue again on Aug. 2, though the Medicare shift will be off the table.

Taylor is still looking for $6.2 million in savings for 2013. To do that, his next recommendation will likely affect 10,000 people who get their medical coverage through the school system, rather than just 2,700 people.

Taylor has already rejected the simplest move, a 33 percent across-the-board increase in premiums. That would work out to $22 to $139 a month —- $264 to $1,668 a year — depending on the plan and how many dependents an employee has.

Charles Lussier writes about education in East Baton Rouge Parish. He can be reached at clussier@theadvocate.com.