Municipal leaders scored an unexpected win last week on municipal health insurance reform when the state Senate included very favorable language in their reform bill within the State Budget.
Earlier this month, House Speaker Bob DeLeo passed a very strong amendment in the state’s House Budget that would allow municipal leaders to move employees into the state Group Insurance Commission (GIC) plan without a vote of the unions. Currently, such a move requires collective bargaining and a tough-to-get vote for such a move. Many union members oppose a move to the GIC because it often means higher co-pays and higher premiums.
City Manager Jay Ash and several other mayors and city managers, including Everett Mayor Carlo DiMaria and Revere Mayor Tom Ambrosino, have stood together in calling for a strong bill, and neither of them thought the Senate would see things their way – as the Senate has historically been much more friendly to unions.
A final vote on the Senate Budget, with the health care reform, is expected some time this week.
“I thought it was a great step forward by the Senate in comparison to what they’ve passed in the past,” said Ambrosino. “It was very beneficial to cities and towns. It was much more than I thought we could get out of the Senate. I was pleasantly surprised because they’ve always been more pro-union. I think that’s a recognition that the status quo can’t continue.”
Chelsea City Manager Jay Ash said that he can work with the Senate plan.
“The Senate proposal on health insurance is another reasonable plan to help bring our largest annual increasing cost center, employee health insurance, better under control,” he said. “The Senate plan differs from the House plan in several aspects. Either plan, though, is a workable contributor to reduce the high cost of municipal health insurance, which, on average, is higher than state, federal and private sector plans.”
Nevertheless, he said that the final compromise on municipal health insurance reform would probably not go far enough in helping communities like Everett, Revere and Chelsea garner the savings they need.
“I would expect the Senate and House to come out with a compromise that will address this problem, although neither will give us the full control that the State itself has to better control costs,” said Ash. “Ultimately, we need that ability and the State and Federal governments need to come up with a way of reducing overall health care inflation…Yes, giving municipalities more control of health insurance will help lower the costs. However, dealing with the inflation within the general health care system is really the most important thing that can be done for government, business and everyone who pays a premium.”
All three city leaders said that the subject is often ignored because it isn’t as glitzy or clear-cut as some issues. However, all three said it shouldn’t be overlooked because it is the biggest source of property tax increases in just about every community.
“Taxpayers should be concerned about this issue because more and more of their tax dollars are going to pay just health insurance for municipal workers,” said Ash. “Over the last decade, the cost has gone from just over a nickel on every dollar we collect to now more than 13 cents. In some communities, it is over 20 cents, or one-fifth of all revenues, going to health insurance.”
The Senate Budget vote could come as soon as today, Wednesday. After that, a compromise committee made up of House and Senate members will have a crack at the matter. Finally, Gov. Deval Patrick will have to agree to any such changes as well.