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2.4% rise for Mass. insurance pool set

Municipalities eye group health plan to save money

By Sean P. Murphy
Globe Staff / March 5, 2011

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Health care premiums for state employees who are covered through the state-operated insurance pool will rise by about 2.4 percent next year, according to officials, a much lower increase than most public and private insurance groups have experienced in recent years.

The rate increase for the Group Insurance Commission was widely anticipated by its 185,000 subscribers and their families, and also by many city mayors and town managers across the state who would like to move their employees into the plan to save money.

Some of those officials are facing double-digit increases in premiums in their own municipalities.

“That 2.4 percent increase looks awfully good to me — I’d take it,’’ said Mayor Kim Driscoll of Salem, where premiums are projected to increase by almost 9 percent in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

That increase means the city of Salem must spend $900,000 more for health insurance next year.

Driscoll said officials in other municipalities have told her they are looking at increases as high as 16 percent in their cities and towns.

Donna VanderClock, town manager of Weston, said she is relieved by the announced rate. Weston is one of 20 municipalities that have opted into the GIC since 2007, when the Legislature and Governor Deval Patrick united behind a bill allowing municipalities into the state plan.

“It’s less of an increase than I thought it would be, which is good news for us,’’ VanderClock said.

The GIC’s 2.4 percent increase is the average of increases in the more than one dozen plans the commission offers to employees, retirees, and elected officials. The increases will apply to about 350,000 individuals, the largest insurance pool in the state.

For Weston, the increase in premiums works out to about 5 percent, based on the plans selected by town employees and retirees, VanderClock said. In the coming year, the town of Weston will pay about $8.8 million for health insurance, almost 12 percent of its budgets.

Some municipalities spend upwards of 20 percent of their budget for health care insurance.

“We are very pleased to be able to keep the rate increases down so low,’’ said Dolores Mitchell, the Group Insurance Commission executive director.

Mitchell said the increases in the various plans offered by the commission range from 1.2 percent to almost 10 percent.

Last year, the commission increased its rates by an average of about 3.2 percent, but also introduced up-front deductibles of $250 for individuals and $750 for families.

There will be no substantial increases in deductibles or copayments next year, she said.

Unions representing municipal workers have looked skeptically at the GIC, whose management has the right to change deductibles and copayments without consulting unions.

By contrast, city mayors and town managers are not allowed to change deductibles and copayments without 70 percent approval of the local unions, according to state law.

State law similarly requires 70 percent union approval for a municipality to move into the GIC.

When the GIC was first opened to municipalities, a handful of towns, including Saugus and Winthrop, joined. In the following two years, Quincy, Brookline, and Norwood, among others, opted into the GIC. But no new municipalities joined for the year that begins July 1.

Municipal officials are pressing legislators to strip unions of their right to bargain over health care benefits, saying it is increasingly difficult to balance budgets in the face of escalating health care costs.

Unions say Massachusetts has a long history of collective bargaining rights for public employees, and they are adamantly opposed to any weakening of their rights.

Sean Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com.

Clarification: The headline for this story should have said retail water and sewer service rates in MWRA communities climbed 4.6 percent in 2010, according to a survey. MWRA’s wholesale rate climbed only 1.49 percent last year.