04/12/2013 10:00 EDT | Updated 06/12/2013 05:12 EDT

Vancouver teachers' massage claims hit $1.6M last year

School officials are concerned about the ballooning costs of a benefit for Vancouver teachers that allows unlimited massages.

In 2012, teachers in the district claimed more than $1.6 million in massages as part of their medical benefits package — a figure that's up 50 per cent from four years ago.

In 2008, there were roughly 100 more full-time teaching positions in the school district, but claims totaled $1.08 million.

The vast majority of B.C. school districts cap massage claims at $500 per year, but there is no limit for Vancouver teachers.

The cost of the massages are covered by the insurance company Pacific Blue Cross, which provides extended health coverage for the teachers. But the increased claims could lead to higher premiums for the school district in future years.

Vancouver School Board spokesperson Kurt Heinrich says that's a concern because administrators can't do anything about it in the short-term.

"We're handcuffed by our collective agreement and we're not doctors, so we're not able to adjudicate what is legitimate for stress or other injuries and what might be less legitimate claims. We rely on Pacific Blue Cross to make those decisions for us," he said.

Silas White, vice chair of the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, says the extra benefit in Vancouver was negotiated more than a decade ago when there wasn't province-wide bargaining, and has been grandfathered into the current contract.

"The big challenge in the last round of bargaining is that it was a zero-zero mandate so we didn't have a lot of leverage to make all districts give up what they may have felt were better benefits in order to sign on to the standardized plan."

The Vancouver School Board says it doesn't know why there's been a spike, but suspects part of it could be simply better awareness of the program spread through word of mouth.

The school board, which is currently undergoing its budget process, estimates it is facing a $7.91 million funding shortfall for the 2013/2014 school year.