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Nurses Association blasts Patrick’s retiree health plan

The powerful Massachusetts Nurses Association today blasted Governor Deval Patrick’s plan to force retired public employees to pay more for their health care, a significant break from other unions that have backed the proposal.

“One of the reasons these nurses and health professionals stay in these environments and provide the care they do at such low pay, is the benefits the state provides them,” David Schildmeier, an association spokesman, said in a statement.

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“Our staff are more likely to be injured on the job, and more likely to need these retiree health benefits,” he said. “How dare the governor penalize the public sector when we are all suffering from an economic climate that was put in distress by corporate interests and Wall Street banks who destroyed our economy.”

The association is the largest nurses union in the state, and its 23,000 members include school nurses and more than 1,800 nurses and health professionals who work in state mental health and public health facilities. It was one of the first unions to endorse Elizabeth Warren, just days after she formed an exploratory committee to run for Senate.

Patrick’s retiree health plan, which he will formally unveil today, will force state and local employees to work until age 60, not 55, before they become eligible for retiree health care benefits and will require them to accrue 20 years of state or local service, up from the current 10. In addition, retirees will have to pick up a greater share of their premiums, costing the average retiree an estimated $1,000 more a year.

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Patrick says the plan will preserve benefits for future retirees by saving $20 billion in unsustainable costs over the next 30 years. State and local retiree health care systems are facing combined $40 billion in long-term costs, among the highest liabilities of any state in the country.

Other unions have signed on to the governor’s plan. The AFL-CIO of Massachusetts had a representative on a 12-member commission that helped draft the legislation. That representative, Andrew Powell, of the American Federation of Teachers, told the Globe on Thursday that labor fully supports the bill because unions recognize that the long-term costs of health care need to be reined in to preserve benefits for future retirees.

“We wanted to be part of the solution,” Powell said. “And it was a true joint solution.”

The proposal marks another attempt by Patrick, a liberal Democrat, to negotiate a reduction in benefits for public employees in a heavily Democratic and labor-friendly state that has long protected such benefits amid an outcry from taxpayer groups.

Patrick is casting the changes as the next step needed to rein in unsustainable government costs, following changes in recent years to ­municipal health insurance policies and state pensions.

Unions and retirees have traditionally resisted any curtailment in retirement benefits, making past attempts to overhaul the system politically treacherous.

But the governor’s proposal is based on changes that labor and retiree groups developed on a commission with state and local officials over the last several months.

Three ranking Democratic and Republican state legislators also sat on the governor’s commission and support the changes, making it more likely the bill will win the support
of top House and Senate leaders.

City and town managers have raised serious concerns about the bill, saying it contains one flawed provision that could prevent local managers from cutting retiree health costs in the short term.

Michael J. Widmer — president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed budget watchdog group — called the governor’s plan “a good first step.”

“It is a real reform,” said Widmer. “We don’t necessarily agree with everything, but, as a general matter, these are positive recommendations that reflect the enormous liability that the state and municipalities face for retiree health care that they can’t pay for.”

The governor’s bill was ­designed by a 12-member commission that has been meeting since May.

The panel determined that Massachusetts faces bears some of the highest costs for retiree health care of any state and that public retirees receive more generous benefits than 90 percent of retirees in the private sector.

Andrew Powell, a member of the American Federation of Teachers, was the AFL-CIO’s representative of the panel.

He said labor fully supports the bill because unions recognize that the long-term costs of health care need to be reined in to preserve benefits for future retirees.

“We wanted to be part of the solution,” Powell said. “And it was a true joint solution.”

Labor’s support, he acknowledged, “does change some of the politics around this.”

The commission voted 11 to 1 to support the recommendations that form the core of the governor’s bill.

The lone dissenting vote was from the Massachusetts Municipal ­Association, which represents city and town managers.

Geoff Beckwith, the association’s executive director, said that while his group supports many of the governor’s proposals, it is opposed to a provision that would forbid municipal managers from changing the share of the premiums their retirees pay through 2016.

That three-year freeze was included in the bill to help win labor’s backing.

But Beckwith said that because most of the savings in the bill would take years to add up, that freeze would make it hard for cities and towns to save money in the near term.

“While the legislation contains many good elements, it would take away one of the impor­tant tools cities and towns have today to control ­retiree health costs over the next decade,” Beckwith said.

State Treasurer Steve Grossman said the bill would help keep borrowing costs low.

“This is exactly what the ­investor community wants to hear,” he said. “It’s another element in a series of reforms that have been achieved in the last several years.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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