Municipal health costs solution may be within sight

Finally, some of our traditionally intimidated politicians are showing a bit of common sense on the issue of excessive health benefits for local public workers unions. We’re not there yet, but we’re moving in the right direction.

The problem is cost sharing, or, in the case of local public workers, lack of sharing. State employees in Massachusetts pay up to 25 percent of their premiums. Private sector works often pay 30 percent. Local workers typically pay a far less. Municipal employees also do far less cost sharing when it comes to deductibles and co-pays than do state workers and the rest of us, for that matter. All this is laid out in The Boston Globe by writer Sean Murphy. Check it out.

Health costs are sucking the oxygen out of municipal budgets, necessitating belt tightening that translates into job loss, larger class size, shortened library hours, and shrinking programs.

Governor Patrick took the first step in his first term by supporting a law permitting cities and towns to buy health insurance for municipal workers through the state’s Group Insurance Commission, which covers all state workers. But the change required the approval of 70 percent of the local union membership to join the GIC, which is a very high threshold and shows why only a couple of dozen communities were able to join. In the first year after joining the GIC, the first 15 communities to do so saved $35 million, according to The Boston Foundation.

Mayor Menino then filed a home rule petition in this legislative session allowing Boston to go forward without union approval. That bill is pending.

Rep. Marty Walsh filed a bill to give local officials and the unions 45 days to come up with acceptable cost-sharing arrangements. If they can’t, it would go to arbitration. That’s a recipe for delay and failure. Local officials grappling with cannibalized budgets are desperate to get their workers into the Group Insurance Commission. Frankly, if the plan is good enough for state workers, why wouldn’t it work for local public employees as well? Globe columnist Scot Lehigh absolutely nailed it in his column on why the arbitration approach is dead wrong.

House Speaker Bob DeLeo gives local officials the right to set copayments and deductibles without union approval but keeps the premium cost sharing on the bargaining table. That’s more power than private sector workers get, but it may be a compromise that can get through the legislative process.

AFL/CIO boss Robert Haynes has linked how legislators vote to union support in the next election. It’s the unions’ right, of course. Still, one hopes that our noble solons have the backbone to keep the plight of municipalities and local taxpayers and residents in mind when they cast their votes on this most important issue.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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