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A few opt out of state’s care plan

Unions get chance in 3 municipalities

Ninety-four municipalities and school districts around the state have formally adopted a state law that saves taxpayers millions of dollars by reducing local government's share of health care costs for city and town employees.

But three communities south of Boston - Brockton, Kingston, and Easton - are among the four in the Bay State to formally reject the savings initiative. The fourth is West Springfield.

The no votes are mind-boggling, especially in Brockton, a city that is struggling with a budget deficit of about $12 million, said Michael Widmer, executive director of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and a key backer of the health care change.


"Brockton really stands out in terms of turning its back on taxpayers,'' said Widmer. "I think the numbers speak for themselves. It's not wise.''

But unions applauded the communities that have held out against the changes.

"What these communities are doing by not opting [in to the municipal health reform act] is what we have been saying all along,'' said Paul Feeney, legislative director for communications for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 2222.

"Collective bargaining works,'' he said. "When both sides can sit down, knowing the pressures each are under, you can get to yes. We celebrate that.''

At issue is the state's Municipal Health Insurance Reform Act, which Widmer's group says has brought $80 million in savings in the program's first year.

The 2011 law gives cities and towns the option to change the health-care plan of public employee unions to help governments save money without traditional collective bargaining. Employees are expected to share approximately 45 percent of that first-year savings, or more than $35 million, either through premium reductions or mitigation plans, according to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, which provided the analysis.

Lower premiums mean higher copayments and the introduction of annual deductibles.


Earlier this year, Mayor Linda Balzotti of Brockton made a pitch for the city to impose the law's provisions, estimating that a move to cover public employees through the state Group Insurance Commission would save almost $5 million in health care costs. But once the issue was put before the City Council, a majority of members rejected it, saying they preferred instead to work with city unions on a voluntary compromise, rather than using the state's Group Insurance Commission option.

Most members of Brockton's 18 unions have $5 copayments and no annual deductible, said Councilor Thomas Monahan, who represents Ward 2. He voted against the initiative because he said unions have always made concessions to assist the city in tough financial times and now should be no different.

"Basically, we wanted to give them a chance to come up with something,'' Monahan said. "It's worth giving them a chance.''

By refusing to opt into the law, the 11-member council, under its own rules, will not be allowed to consider the measure again until 2014. In that case, Monahan said, the unions have two years to compromise. If they do not, the City Council vote could go another way next time.

All city unions except the one that covers Brockton's teachers have been without a contract for a year, officials said.

Brockton City Council President Thomas Brophy, a councilor at large, said no official steps have been taken to negotiate savings with union leaders, but those leaders have already reached out to a consultant for assistance.


"There is a step forward,'' he said.

Brophy said he would have preferred to postpone a vote on the insurance issue or to table it, but he went along with the majority of council members who clearly voiced a preference to take the unions at their word.

"I was more cautious,'' Brophy said. "I didn't see the need to rush. My mother named me Thomas for a reason. I doubt everything.''

Other communities realized savings early on. Quincy agreed in 2008 to join the Group Insurance Commission plan. Since then, the city has saved $30 million in premiums.

The Silver Lake Regional School District, which includes Kingston students, has adopted the health insurance reform law, but has no immediate plans to implement it.

Kingston selectmen, on the other hand, rejected the measure recently by a 2-to-2 vote, similarly encouraging the town to work with unions individually on cost savings.

That may be a challenge, though. In February, five union leaders representing police superior officers, patrolmen, teachers, school support personnel, and town employees informed selectmen they would no longer work with Town Administrator James Thomas, complaining of unprofessional behavior and bullying tactics.

After meeting in executive session, selectmen later rejected the complaints, expressing full confidence in Thomas's abilities.

"Once we get through Town Meeting and the elections, I think this is coming back up,'' Thomas said in an interview.

In Easton, Town Administrator David Colton said the reason his town did not adopt the state health insurance change is that the changes Easton negotiated to employee health plans in 2009 made such a decision unnecessary.


"For example, our copays are higher than the most popular [Group Insurance Commission] offerings,'' he said.

"In fact, had we chosen to migrate to GIC, our premiums would have gone up.''

Colton said officials in Easton did design a plan that is similar to that of the Group Insurance Commission, which added a further deductible to already high copayments.

"The result was a savings of $73,000 for next year,'' he said. "This amounts to $150 per employee, and, given our positive bargaining history, we feel that we can achieve that level of savings through traditional bargaining.''

Easton selectmen are keeping their options open, he said, and could rethink the decision next year.

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.