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Woburn

Mayor seeks talks with unions on health costs

Mayor Scott D. Galvin is seeking talks with municipal unions on easing Woburn’s rising health insurance costs after his bid to tap a state law to make changes was derailed by the City Council.

Galvin said he sent a letter to the city’s unions proposing that he meet informally with their representatives on the insurance issue. The sessions are set to begin Thursday.

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The mayor had proposed that the city adopt a 2011 state law that lets cities and towns revamp their health plans without union agreement provided they are comparable with those offered by the state’s Group Insurance Commission system — or to transfer to the GIC. But the effort ran aground when the council voted, 5 to 4, not to send it to committee.

Galvin said he continues to believe the law, which has been adopted so far by more than 100 communities in the state, is an “excellent tool” for mayors and city and town managers to control escalating health care costs, but he is willing to make “a good faith effort” to seek common ground with the unions.

“You have to try all options, and I thought the first option I put forward was the best option for the city as a whole… . .  Now we will go the next approach and see what we can do,” he said. “My obligation is to do the best we can for everyone in the city and treat everyone fairly.”

Galvin said that if the talks prove fruitful, the next step would be to initiate formal negotiations to seek a deal on revising the health plan. But if the initial talks are not successful, “we will go back to the council and discuss our options,” he said.

Bill Stukey, a Woburn fire lieutenant and president of the city’s firefighters union, said his union would take part in the talks. But he took issue with the mayor’s “portraying that he can’t get any concessions from the unions,” noting that in their last two contracts, unions agreed to increase from 10 percent to 20 percent their share of health insurance premiums.

“He tried the back door to this saying he can’t work with the unions, when we’ve been nothing but cooperative,” said Stukey, who alsoquestioned the city’s stated rise in its health costs — he said it appears that costs have actually fallen the last four years.

Ward 2 Alderman Richard F. Gately Jr., who voted against sending the mayor’s proposal to committee, welcomes the planned discussions with the unions. “That is the approach he should have done before he brought that package to the City Council,” he said. “The unions are very intelligent people. They know we cannot sustain the health insurance costs the way we are doing now. I’m sure if the mayor sits down with our unions, they will work with him.”

Gately said if there is no progress, the mayor could “bring it back to the City Council for more discussion.”

In his original presentation to the council in support of adopting the state law, Galvin had cited figures that the city’s health insurance costs have more than doubled in the past 10 years at a time when its overall budget had grown by 40 percent. Health insurance costs now consume nearly 14 percent of the budget, or more than $16 million this year.

Galvin estimates that adoption of the state law would save the city and its employees $1.7 million in premiums per year. The savings would come from higher co-pays and from charging subscribers deductibles when they seek care outside of a designated tier of hospitals — features in a new plan the city would likely offer that is modeled after the state’s plan.

An average subscriber who pays a monthly premium of $379 for family coverage under the city’s current HMO Blue plan would pay $361 under the proposed plan, while the average individual paying $142 would pay $136.

Ward 7 Alderman Raymond B. Drapeau said he was also glad the mayor was seeking to talk to the unions, noting that he had voted against adopting the act in part because those discussions had not occurred.

“He was going in the direction that he wanted, to be the sole arbiter of what health care everyone gets in the city, and I didn’t think that was fair to any of the employees of the city,” Drapeau said of Galvin. He said he was also concerned that the plan would force people with serious medical issues to “choose between the cost and the care they need.”

After the council halted further discussion of adopting the state law, Galvin issued a sharply worded statement, saying he was “amazed and disappointed.” by the action.

Calling rising health costs an “critical and urgent financial issue for the city,” Galvin said, “For a majority of the City Council to refuse to face this reality — or even discuss it — is irresponsible and simply kicks the difficult but necessary measures to address this growing financial deficit down the road for others.”

“The five self-interested aldermen . . . all of whom receive the same city of Woburn health insurance benefits that they refused to discuss reforming,” Galvin added, ” have clearly neglected their fiduciary duty to the 39,000 Woburn residents and taxpayers they were elected to serve.” According to Galvin, eight of nine councilors receive health insurance, as does he.

Drapeau said he found the mayor’s charge “irresponsible.”

“We decide things based on the good of the whole,’’ he said. “It’s not about us, it’s about the community, about the employees — in this case you were affecting hundreds of employees.”

Gately also dismissed the criticism, saying, “We are open to negotiations. We know we can’t keep sustaining this type of money that we are expending on health insurance, but we don’t want anything rammed down our throats. Negotiate with the unions. . . . If it doesn’t work, come to us.”

Galvin denied attempting to “jam anything down anyone’s throat,” saying his request was simply to send the matter to committee. He also noted that the 2011 law was specifically designed to give cities and towns a tool to make up for lost state aid — in the case of Woburn, more than $2 million since 2008 — to support schools, public safety, and other needs.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.
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