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Patrick’s health care proposal praised

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / January 27, 2011

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Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal to provide cities and towns relief from escalating health insurance costs is drawing a positive reception from officials in communities north of Boston.

The proposal would require cities and towns to bargain with unions to come up with a health plan equivalent in cost and value to the state health plan provided through the Group Insurance Commission. If no agreement is reached by July 1, the community would either have to move into the commission or could implement — without union agreement — a plan equivalent to it.

The plan, announced by Patrick last Friday at the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s annual meeting, stops short of providing municipalities with the authority to design their health plans without union bargaining.

But some local officials, while cautioning that the details would still need to be fleshed out in legislation and regulations, said the proposal could give them the tools they need to rein in costs.

“What this proposal does is it forces a partnership between the municipal leadership and labor to meet the objective of achieving the same savings as the GIC. So it’s bold,’’ said Amesbury Mayor Thatcher W. Kezer 3d. “It’s different from what I had expected, but I think it gives me the leverage I need to force something to happen in order to generate the savings.’’

“I think it’s a very important step and I hope the Legislature moves quickly to adopt his proposal,’’ said Salem Mayor Kimberley L. Driscoll. “It’s talking about meaningful savings to cities and towns, and meaningful savings in the next fiscal year.’’

Currently, municipalities must secure union agreements to enter the Group Insurance Commission or make changes to the design of their health plan, a hurdle that many local officials say hampers them from reducing costs.

The state four years ago opened the way for municipalities to join the commission, but only a few have done so.

“I think giving [unions] a voice at the table but not a veto is the best approach,’’ she said.

Robert J. Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said in a statement Friday, “Unions stand ready to be part of the solution to the health care cost crisis in which we all find ourselves. . . . The only way to ensure we are part of the solution is to guarantee that we have a voice and meaningful role in how cost savings are achieved. That voice and that role is called collective bargaining.’’

Revere Mayor Thomas G. Ambrosino supports the governor’s plan.

“The governor has taken a bold and courageous step to address the inequities in health insurance for municipalities,’’ he said in a prepared statement. “Under his proposal, cities like Revere will be able to revise their health insurance plans to be in line with plans offered by the [Group Insurance Commission].

While Melrose is already in the commission, Mayor Robert J. Dolan praised the initiative for the benefits he said it would offer communities statewide.

Dolan said even if the governor’s plan takes effect, fiscal 2012 promises to be a rough year for cities and towns, which face significant local aid cuts.

The governor Friday announced his budget proposal would cut general aid by 7 percent, while increasing school aid and road funding. But Dolan said the health savings plan “sets us up for a stronger recovery’’ when times improve.

“Obviously, the devil is in the details, but I’m very optimistic about the attitude the governor expressed and that [House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo] has expressed,’’ said Beverly Mayor William F. Scanlon Jr. DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, recently said he favored forcing municipalities to join the commission or to adopt similar plans.

Lowell city manager Bernard F. Lynch called the governor’s plan “a very important step in giving us a good amount of ability to . . . manage these costs more effectively.’’

He said issues still to be settled include defining what constitutes a plan that is equivalent to the commission, and whether communities that realize health care savings would be required to provide new benefits to unions.

Gloucester Mayor Carolyn A. Kirk was less enthusiastic, saying she is “very skeptical about the governor’s and the legislative attempts . . . to give us the plan design authority,’’ given that past efforts have not succeeded.

Kirk said Gloucester is negotiating with its unions and its provider, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, to develop a plan that can save the city money.

“If the governor’s plan and the Legislature’s plan can help, that’s great, but I’m very skeptical,’’ she said.

But Chelsea city manager Jay Ash applauded the initiative.

“I’m very excited the governor is continuing his commitment to cities and towns by helping us deal with the biggest budget-buster we face,’’ he said.