Mass. Nurses Association blasts Gov. Patrick’s retiree health plan for state workers

The powerful Massachusetts Nurses Association today blasted Governor Deval Patrick’s plan to force retired public employees to pay more for their health care, a significant break from other unions that have backed the proposal.

“One of the reasons these nurses and health professionals stay in these environments and provide the care they do at such low pay, is the benefits the state provides them,” David Schildmeier, an association spokesman, said in a statement.

“Our staff are more likely to be injured on the job, and more likely to need these retiree health benefits,” he said. “How dare the governor penalize the public sector when we are all suffering from an economic climate that was put in distress by corporate interests and Wall Street banks who destroyed our economy.”

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The association is the largest nurses union in the state, and its 23,000 members include school nurses and more than 1,800 nurses and health professionals who work in state mental health and public health facilities. It was one of the first unions to endorse Elizabeth Warren, just days after she formed an exploratory committee to run for Senate.

Patrick’s retiree health plan, which he will formally unveil today, will force state and local employees to work until age 60, not 55, before they become eligible for retiree health care benefits and will require them to accrue 20 years of state or local service, up from the current 10. In addition, retirees will have to pick up a greater share of their premiums, costing the average retiree an estimated $1,000 more a year.

Patrick says the plan will preserve benefits for future retirees by saving $20 billion in unsustainable costs over the next 30 years. State and local retiree health care systems are facing combined $40 billion in long-term costs, among the highest liabilities of any state in the country.

Other unions have signed on to the governor’s plan. The AFL-CIO of Massachusetts had a representative on a 12-member commission that helped draft the legislation. That representative, Andrew Powell, of the American Federation of Teachers, told the Globe on Thursday that labor fully supports the bill because unions recognize that the long-term costs of health care need to be reined in to preserve benefits for future retirees.

“We wanted to be part of the solution,” Powell said. “And it was a true joint solution.”