"It is an amazing [medical] plan," he said. "This is one of the great benefits of coming to work here in the Newport-Mesa school district."

Dix believes educating teachers on how to use their benefits effectively — including wellness plans that encourage employees to exercise or use preventive care — could keep costs down.

For instance, telling teachers they can use a 24-hour urgent-care facility instead of an emergency room could help control premiums, he said.

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After the committee hashes out options, it will make recommendations for negotiators in the teachers union or classified employees union to take to the district.

"We want to really focus on improving the health of our employees and changing behaviors of how the plan is accessed," Dix said.

But that may not be enough, UCI's Feldstein said.

Higher co-pays and deductibles are a more effective way to drive costs down compared to wellness plans and education that must be targeted to high-risk individuals to make a difference, he said.

"The main thing is if people had to pay more out of pocket, they would pick plans based on cost and value and more competition," Feldstein said.

That, in essence, is the point of the Cadillac tax, he explained.

"Economists have generally said that very generous healthcare benefits make people immune to the price they pay," he said. "Therefore, they use more services than if they had to make some cost-benefit analysis."

Newport-Mesa employees have no deductible, Caldecott said. They do pay a $20 to $200 or percentage-based co-pay depending on the medical service.

Employees began contributing to their premiums in 2010. This year, individuals paid $860 of their annual premium and families paid $1,890.

But the teachers' union plans to ask the district to cover more of those costs next year while unions search for cost-cutting tools, Dix said.

"Long term, it is our goal that we have a lot more time to deal with the implications of the Affordable Care Act," the NMFT executive director said.

That goal can be undermined if the district says employees must simply pay more, he said.

"We all have a vested interest in working together," he said. "And what prevents us, and what becomes an obstacle to working together, is when there's a different dialogue coming from the superintendent that resigns itself to, 'Well, you guys are going to have to pay more.'"

That statement was purely informational, Navarro said, noting that during his career as a teacher he often felt cut out or unaware of the budget process.

"I just think that I need to be transparent with the information," he said.

Navarro said he would welcome cost savings to preserve benefits if that's possible, but how the district thinks of its benefits must change.

"I think healthcare is now being looked at as part of our overall compensation package, and that's a big mind shift for us," Navarro said. "Business sees this as part of the whole compensation package, and we need to also start looking at it like that."

If that $2.3-million tax does come to bear, the money has to come from somewhere, and wages are on the table.

"If the benefits go up under the Affordable Care Act as they're proposed to," Navarro said, "it will impact our ability to offer increases in other places."