By Seth Daniel
A proposed municipal healthcare change unveiled last Friday by Gov. Deval Patrick is getting good initial reviews locally – with most indicating that they like the plan, but hope that it moves quickly through the Legislature.
Speaking to the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA), Gov. Patrick – as promised – unveiled legislation that he plans to file immediately that will reportedly save cities and towns $120 million.
The key part of the administrationâ€™s health insurance plan design proposal will require all cities and town to either join the stateâ€™s Group Insurance Commission (GIC) or institute a program of equivalent value and cost by the start of fiscal year 2012, which is July 1, 2011.
These moves would be accomplished through expedited negotiations between municipal unions and city leaders. If an agreement to make a move cannot be quickly hammered out, the legislation gives cities and towns the ability to make the move without union support, essentially taking health insurance out of the collective bargaining realm.
It is believed that cities and towns like Revere, Chelsea and Everett will save millions by making these moves. Part of the plan most likely would mean that city leaders would have to return some of the savings to union workers.
While city leaders have said collective bargaining is a problem with health insurance, unions have been skeptical of removing such a large bargaining chip. There is apparently support on both sides for this proposal – at least at the moment.
â€œI am confident better days lie ahead so long as we all work together,â€ said Gov. Patrick. â€œWith the initiatives announced today, our cities and towns, and their public employee unions, can contain health care costs, continue to assure quality affordable care for workers, and maintain public services.â€
Revere Mayor Tom Ambrosino praised the plan.
â€œUnder his proposal, cities like Revere will be able to revise their health insurance plans to be in line with plans offered by the stateâ€™s Group Insurance Commission,â€ he said. â€œThose state plans, which offer first class medical coverage to the stateâ€™s own employees, are significantly less expensive than plans currently in place for most municipalities. Under the Governorâ€™s initiative, unions will have a role in this process, but they will not have a veto over the necessary plan changes.â€
Chelsea City Manager Jay Ash said he is happy to see the proposal, but would be happier to see it approved quickly.
â€œWe can offer our dedicated employees great health insurance plans at more affordable costs,â€ he said. â€œThat would seem to be a no-brainer in todayâ€™s day and age and, frankly, in any era. Iâ€™m thrilled that Gov. Patrick continues to respond to this pressing need, and appreciative that legislative leaders seemingly feel the same way. Until something happens, though, I remain anxious for the relief that will make it a bit easier for us to focus tax dollars on important core services the public needs and expects.â€
Everett Mayor Carlo DiMaria said they are glad to see the flexibility, and believe they can reap the greatest savings in Everett by designing a plan.
â€œWhat we are truly looking for is the ability to design a healthcare plan
that benefits both the city and our employees,â€ he said. â€œWe havenâ€™t determined whether thatâ€™s through the GIC or an independently designed plan. Our initial research shows that we can potentially save $1 million with very minimal impact to the employee, if we had the ability to make changes. At the end of the day, we need serious reform. Healthcare costs are an overwhelming percentage of our budget and as a municipal leader, I need tools that help me control costs without sacrificing important services.â€
Revereâ€™s Ambrosino summed up all three leadersâ€™ comments in saying that, while it is a good start, it needs to be approved quickly if it is going to make a difference in this yearâ€™s budget.
â€œThis is a critical tool for municipalities as we struggle to absorb even further reductions in local aid,â€ said Ambrosino. â€œMunicipalities are desperate for immediate fiscal relief. The Governorâ€™s plan provides it. I urge the Legislature to make this among its highest priorities and quickly approve it so savings can be achieved in Fiscal Year 2012.â€
The second part of Patrickâ€™s savings plan includes shifting retired municipal workers to the Medicare system, though many cities and towns locally have already done so.