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Deal reached in Mass. on municipal health care

By Bob Salsberg
Associated Press / July 8, 2011

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BOSTON—Gov. Deval Patrick and legislative leaders reached agreement Friday on a plan to reduce the cost to cities and towns of providing health insurance to municipal employees.

Patrick said in a statement that he planned to file amendments Monday to the municipal health care overhaul measure sent to him last week as part of the state budget. It would give cities and towns more flexibility to make changes in co-payments, deductibles and other aspects of public employee health insurance outside of the collective bargaining process.

Under the proposal, cities and towns could shift their workers into the state's Group Insurance Commission or another lower-cost plan after a monthlong discussion period with unions.

Patrick, who had been reviewing the legislation, said he wanted to ensure that the measure delivered savings to municipalities but also kept a "meaningful role" for unions in the negotiations.

"Since the Legislature's vote on the final budget, municipal officials and labor leaders have agreed to a few improvements to strengthen the bill and better serve both goals," Patrick said.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray both signaled that they would support the changes offered by Patrick. Votes on the amendments were expected in both branches Monday.

The issue had been perhaps the most contentious element of the lengthy budget negotiations on Beacon Hill, with intense lobbying by union leaders who claimed it would violate collective bargaining rights won over the years. Meanwhile, cities and towns facing cuts in local aid demanded that the state provide them relief from the soaring costs of providing health insurance to workers.

DeLeo said the amendments would bolster the role of labor without diminishing the substance of the bill.

"It is my hope (the amendments) receive the support of both the House and Senate and reach the governor's desk on Monday so that municipal health care reform can become law immediately," he said.

The changes being proposed by the governor were aimed particularly at giving greater protection to retirees and older employees who utilize health care services more frequently, said a senior Patrick administration official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the amendments had not yet been filed.

One amendment would extend from two years to three a freeze on the percentage increase in the share of health care premiums paid by retired municipal employees. A second would increase the portion of the first-year savings that municipalities must set aside to help offset any higher deductibles and copayments paid by employees, the official said.

Another amendment would require that cities and towns that choose to move their employees into the state GIC achieve savings at least 5 percent greater than what they would have achieved under the maximum possible increases in copayments and deductibles.

The governor is also seeking to strengthen language in the bill to ensure that employees are not limited in choices of hospitals or specialized health care, such as mental health or chiropractic care, the official said.

James Machado, director of the Massachusetts Police Association, said he hadn't seen the governor's final amendments but had worked with other union leaders and legislative officials during the week to change earlier language that he called "ambiguous." Machado said a top goal was to ensure that retirees and employees with chronic illnesses are protected.

"We wanted to make sure those people didn't have to choose between medicine and food and shelter," he said.

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Paul Toner said he hopes the final legislation will address the workers' concerns.

"We felt there needed to be a bit more of a voice," he said. "We also wanted the language to be stronger in some areas to ensure the quality of some plans would not deteriorate through negotiations."

Geoff Beckwith, director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said his group that represents cities and towns supports the governor's amendments and hopes the House and Senate will act quickly on them. He described the amendments as "refinements and clarifications."

Beckwith said the amendments would provide "strong reform" while bringing all parties together.

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Associated Press writer Johanna Kaiser contributed to this report.