In Contentious Vote, Council Votes to Allow Change to Insurance

Current and former municipal employees crowded into Monday night’s City Council meeting as the council took up a vote to allow City Manager Thomas Ambrosino to negotiate changes to the city’s group health insurance policies.

Most of those employees did not leave happily or quietly as the council voted 8-2 to grant Ambrosino that authority to negotiate the changes. Councillors Roy Avellaneda and Yamir Rodriguez voted against the order, while Councillor Calvin T. Brown was not present at the meeting.

The city’s current group health plan is governed by a three-year agreement with the Public Employee Committee (PEC) that expires on June 30 of this year.

“During the months of November through March, I did attempt to negotiate with the PEC a new multi-year agreement that would provide some cost savings to the group health plan,” Ambrosino stated in a letter to the council. “Unfortunately, I have not been able to reach agreement with the unions.”

Under Massachusetts General Laws, Ambrosino stated, in the absence of a new agreement, the old PEC agreement will remain in effect indefinitely. Without City Council action, Ambrosino said he cannot put any health care cost savings in place.

The action approved by the City Council allows the city to take advantage of recent state legislation that allows municipalities to implement cost saving plan design changes on its own if no agreement can be reached with the PEC as long as the city agrees to share a percentage of its first year cost savings with the unions.

With the newly granted authority by the council, the City Manager said he will negotiate reasonable design changes to the city’s group health policies, likely by imposing deductibles in line with deductibles paid for health insurance by state employees.

Ambrosino said even with any changes, Chelsea will always have health insurance at least as good as that provided to Massachusetts public employees.

However, a letter to the City Council submitted by the Chelsea Public Employees Committee outlined over two dozen reasons why members believe the adoption of the changes to the group health insurance should not be adopted.

“The PEC strongly believes that the adoption of Sections 21-23 is inappropriate and premature for multiple reasons: the Self-Insurance Trust Fund is running about a $2 million surplus; the PEC has agreed to apply any surplus to reduce future health insurance costs; City Manager Thomas Ambrosino wants the sickest families among City employees and retirees to pay $1 million more on an annual basis currently paid by the City; the PEC and City Manager Thomas Ambrosino agree that no changes to employee/retiree health insurance are needed until FY2022; Ambrosino has failed to bargain in good faith for a successor PEC agreement; a grievance, including an alleged unfair labor practice, are pending at this time; and Sections 21-23 will effectively disable bargaining on health insurance,” the letter summarizes.

City Council President Damali Vidot noted that her husband works for the Department of Public Works and that any changes in health insurance would directly affect her. However, she said the changes are necessary to allow Ambrosino to negotiate with city unions.

“We hire the Town Manager to negotiate with the unions, and I’m not comfortable when he does not have all the tools needed for the negotiations,” said Vidot.

Vidot she said she hopes Ambrosino can go back to the unions with the new negotiating tools and find common ground with the unions. In addition to wanting the best for city employees, Vidot said the council has a fiscal responsibility for the entire community.

The council president also said that there has been some miscommunication on the issue, especially when it comes to retirees. Vidot said changes to group health insurance plans would only affect a very few retirees who do not qualify for Medicare.

District 1 Councillor Robert Bishop said he agreed that the City Manager should have all the tools available as he negotiates with the city’s union.

As the vote took place, many in the audience shouted and voiced their displeasure, with several people stating the council should be ashamed of their vote. The meeting came to a brief halt as the crowd noisily filed out of the council meeting, with several audience members individually appealing to councillors.

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