News & Events

Public employee unions will pitch plan on health insurance

Proposal to come as soaring costs frustrate leaders

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By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / March 7, 2011

Several union organizations representing public employees are expected to announce a major proposal today on municipal health insurance, as the Legislature considers how to rein in those spiraling costs.

The announcement, to take place at 11 a.m. at the State House, comes as Governor Deval Patrick and the Massachusetts Municipal Association are seeking legislative approval to give municipal leaders greater power to change health insurance coverage, a matter typically subjected to intense negotiations with local union leaders.

Representatives for the union organizations declined yesterday to divulge any details about their proposal or to discuss broadly the issue of rising health insurance costs. The announcement is being made by the Public Employees’ Municipal Health Coalition, which represents such union organizations as the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, and the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts.

For years, municipal and school district leaders have been criticizing rapidly rising health insurance costs as a budget buster. They say health insurance coverage and other rising costs have forced them to cut back local services, lay off employees, or seek voter approval for hefty property tax increases.

According to the Municipal Association, health insurance costs for cities and towns have risen by 150 percent over the last 10 years, compared with 30 percent for other costs of running local government. Municipal and school leaders have partially blamed unions for the problem, expressing frustration over their refusal to agree to higher premium payments, co-payments, and other health insurance fees.

Several local unions enjoy health insurance benefits that exceed the norm for the private sector, the group said.

“Taxpayers are paying much more than they should for public employees’ health insurance,’’ Geoffrey Beckwith, the municipal association’s executive director, said yesterday. “Our estimate is over $100 million . . . . Now is the time to give cities and towns the tools to control health insurance costs.’’

Beckwith said he is interested to find out what the unions propose today and how it compares with the proposals that are on the table. In January, Patrick presented an overhaul of health insurance programs for municipal employees that could yield more than $120 million in savings.

The proposal would require all eligible retired municipal employees to switch from their municipality’s health insurance program to Medicare. It also would require cities and towns to either join the state health insurance program, the Group Insurance Commission, or devise a local plan of equal or lesser cost.

However, the latter move, under the governor’s proposal, would still be subject to union negotiations for what Patrick has deemed a “very truncated and abbreviated’’ period. If no agreement is reached by July 1, then the communities would be required to go with the state insurance program or one of comparable value designed locally.

The governor’s office declined yesterday to comment on the unions’ announcement until officials hear the details.

Tomorrow, the Joint Committee on Public Service is expected to hold a hearing on several bills about municipalities’ joining the state insurance program.

When Patrick announced his proposal, many municipal leaders praised elements of it, but many were also concerned that unions would retain too much negotiating power. The association has had legislation filed that would allow municipal leaders to implement health insurance plans outside of collective bargaining so long as those plans are equivalent to or more generous than what state employees receive.

One frustration shared by municipal leaders is that they have to negotiate health insurance changes with their unions, while the state does not have to do the same with its unions, Beckwith said.

“What city and towns are looking for is the same power state government uses to control costs for state employees,’’ Beckwith said.

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said he is anxious to see some resolution reached soon on helping municipalities and school districts reduce health insurance costs. He said his association supports efforts to move eligible retirees onto Medicare and enrolling public employees in the state insurance program.

“It’s critical to get this issue resolved as soon as possible,’’ Koocher said. “If we can count on additional savings from health insurance, that will save some jobs for people who serve children.’’

© Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company.