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Group: Localities saved $80 million after curbing benefits

A taxpayer group said Monday that Massachusetts cities and towns have saved $80 million on health care since the state enacted a controversial law last year that forced teachers, firefighters, and other municipal employees to give up some of their collective bargaining rights.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-funded watchdog that advocated for the law, said in its report that the overhaul was likely to save more than the $100 million annually that had initially been projected by the group.

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The law, signed as part of the state budget in July 2011, gave local government new powers to force labor unions to accept changes in their health plans that would reduce costs. But the legal change required that the local plans be at least as generous as the plan covering most state government workers.

Unions fought the loss of collective bargaining rights, but publicly supported the final bill, which gave them a finite window of time to bargain before local governments act unilaterally.

Paul Toner, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said public employees have helped local governments save money under the new law.

“Teachers and other public employees have really stepped up to the plate in negotiating changes that have led to dramatic savings for cities and towns while also protecting retirees and employees who have high medical costs,’’ he said in a statement. “These changes have saved jobs and protected public education and other important services in our communities.’’

The Taxpayers Foundation said that at least 127 municipalities and regional school districts had curbed their health care costs, either by using the law to force health care changes or through collective bargaining. Proponents of the policy said some cities reached agreements with unions that trimmed health costs because the new rules gave cities added leverage.

Another 19 cities and towns are in the final stages of negotiations, according to the report.

The report adds that employees will share about $35 million of the initial $80 million in savings, either through lower health care premiums or plans intended to protect vulnerable workers and retirees from losing health care benefits.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.
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