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Mass. unions offer health care overhaul proposal

STEVE LEBLANC

Unions representing state and municipal workers are offering their own proposal to help cut the soaring cost of health care spending, which threatens the budgets of Massachusetts cities and towns.

The coalition of unions, including the Massachusetts Teachers Association and Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said the plan would save an estimated $120 million in the first year. The plan calls for half of the savings to go back to workers for health care.

In return for concessions such as higher co-pays, the union officials said they want to preserve collective bargaining rights, calling those rights “sacrosanct.”

“There is no false choice between savings on health insurance and collective bargaining,” said Massachusetts AFL-CIO President Robert Haynes. “You can achieve savings through collective bargaining.”

The three-year proposal includes some of the elements of a bill filed by Gov. Deval Patrick. A public hearing on Patrick’s bill was scheduled for Tuesday at the Statehouse.

The union proposal would establish health care cost benchmarks that both municipalities and unions would have to meet at the end of the bargaining process. If an agreement can’t be reached both sides would enter an expedited dispute-resolution process.

While there has been a push to force municipal workers into the state’s Group Insurance Commission to help rein in health spending, the union proposal would let municipalities and workers bargain either to enter the commission or make changes to existing health plans to lower costs as long as they meet the benchmark.

The unions are estimating savings of up to $120 million in the first year, with half of that going back to cover health care costs of workers.

Another key element of the union plan would be to allow all public unions in a city or town to negotiate as a single unit, a move seen as strengthening the hand of unions.

That measure appears at odds with a proposal by the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns.

The association is pushing a measure designed to strengthen the hands of municipal officials over health costs, in part by giving them the authority to make changes to health care plans for public workers as long as those changes are in line with the Group Insurance Commission.

The union plan also seems at odds with a proposal by House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

The Winthrop Democrat has said he would press to require Massachusetts cities and towns to put their municipal employees into the state’s health care system.

Placing workers under the Group Insurance Commission could save up to $100 million that could be reallocated as local aid, according to DeLeo.

Union officials say they understand that city and town finances are being squeezed by the cost of paying for health care for public employees, and say they are ready to deal, as long as they have a seat at the negotiation table.

“We are willing to make sacrifices to save jobs and vital services,” said Massachusetts Teachers Association President Paul Toner. “Like the public employees in Wisconsin, however, we will fight hard against any proposal to undermine our collective bargaining rights.”

Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez, the governor’s budget chief, said the administration appreciate the unions’ “willingness to work with us in delivering cost-savings to cities and towns that will help preserve critical services.”

“Gov. Patrick has made health care cost-containment a top priority and we look forward to hearing further details of this proposal,” Gonzalez said in a statement.

Patrick’s bill would require all cities and towns to either join the GIC or institute a program of equivalent value and cost by the start of 2012 fiscal year on July 1.

The governor’s bill would also require cities and towns to move eligible municipal retirees into Medicare, a shift that the administration said will save municipalities an estimated $15-30 million annually.

The union proposal also calls for that shift to Medicare.

Associated Press