Friday, July 1, 2016

State judge blocks School Board effort to eliminate cosmetic surgery rider

A state judge has placed a temporary restraining order on the Buffalo School Board for trying to eliminate the controversial cosmetic surgery rider from the teacher contract without negotiating it with the union.

The order by State Supreme Court Justice Tracey A. Bannister came after the Buffalo Teachers Federation filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging the board’s decision to force the contract change, arguing that it violates state laws on collective bargaining.

The lawsuit argues that some teachers use the benefit to pay for certain surgeries, including some that are preventive, that are not covered under their regular insurance. Those services include facial peels to prevent skin cancer and treatment of mobility-limiting or disfiguring scarring caused by accidents. It also covers treatment of female breast deformation and protruding ears on children.

“It is my understanding, based on my communications with unit members who obtain services under the cosmetic surgery provision and with a physician who provides such services, that the cosmetic surgery provision covers a range of services not otherwise covered under the traditional plan,” BTF President Philip Rumore wrote in his affidavit.

A district spokesperson said the administration will abide by the judge’s ruling until the issue is resolved. The two parties have a conference scheduled for Aug. 2.

The board voted earlier this month to eliminate the $5 million cosmetic surgery rider, a proposal brought to the table by members of the departing board majority. The board’s intention was to redirect those dollars to programs that have a direct impact on students.

“The judge has temporarily restrained the board from the very activity all the parties, including the BTF, actually agree should be eliminated,” said board member Larry Quinn, one of the members who sponsored the resolution. “Mr. Rumore has promised to eliminate this practice for many years but has not done so. This has cost the schoolchildren and the thousands of the teachers, who do not enjoy the benefits of the cosmetic rider, tens of millions of dollars.”

The decision, however, is unlikely to stand, regardless of what happens in court. New board members – who were backed by the teachers union – take office Friday and are expected to shift the balance of power on the board. Some already have said they intend to bring the issue back up for a vote and reverse the decision.

The cosmetic rider has long been a controversial part of the Buffalo teacher contract, drawing national media coverage from outlets including CNN and the Atlantic. Critics say that teachers should not be able to receive cosmetic procedures, such as breast implants and facials, at public expense.

Even Rumore has said he is willing the give up the benefit.

The board’s decision to force a change, however, may alter that. Teachers have been upset by the board’s attempt to change a part of their contract without negotiating it. Some have come forward with stories of how they have used the surgery to fix deformation, burns and scarring.

As part of its case, the union gave examples of cases where there would have been irreparable harm to teachers or their families if they did not have access to the coverage.

That included a 1-year-old who was severely burned and whose standard medical coverage did not include treatment to prevent scarring.

Other teachers who have a family history of skin cancer use the rider to receive laser or chemical treatments.

“While many think the cosmetic surgery provision is just for face-lifts, it is also for the prevention of severe scarring, pre- and post-cancer treatments, the prevention of blood clots, etc.,” Rumore said.

“The current board majority has not only shown its contempt for teachers, they are also attempting to make the new board that takes office on July 1, 2016, look bad when the new board overturns this clear violation of law.”

Tiffany Lankes

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