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Patrick defends House health bill

Says proposal unlike Wis. law

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / April 28, 2011

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Governor Deval Patrick chided labor leaders yesterday for comparing the House plan to curb collective bargaining rights to a tougher law passed recently in Wisconsin.

“It’s very important that we dial down the rhetoric,’’ he said. “This is not Wisconsin. That’s not what the House did. I’m not going to sign a Wisconsin-type bill in the end.’’

The governor was speaking hours after House lawmakers approved a bill that would limit the ability of municipal employees to bargain over their health care plans, in an effort to save cities and towns $100 million.

The bill has touched off a fierce debate between labor leaders, who call it an assault on workers, and local officials who say it will help prevent layoffs and cuts in services. The battle has driven a wedge between unions and their traditional allies in the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Patrick, who has sought to find a middle ground on the issue, applauded the House for its “very important vote’’ Tuesday night. He said it demonstrated that House leaders are serious about easing the burden of rising health care costs for communities.

But he refused to discuss the specifics of the bill or to say whether it satisfied his demand that labor retain a “meaningful role’’ in health care negotiations.

“There is room for debate,’’ he said when pressed on the details. “The bill is not final.’’

Senate President Therese Murray, who has also stated that unions must have a voice in health plan negotiations, said the House had “moved the needle’’ on the issue. She would not say whether she supports the measure.

Murray pointed out that the Senate approved bills in 2009 and 2010 that also sought to cut local health care costs. Those measures, if they were to pass the Senate again this year, would give unions more of a voice than they would have under the House legislation. “They have taken it up, and we will be addressing it in the next month,’’ Murray said, cutting off further questions.

Labor leaders, meanwhile, continued to denounce the bill. Several hundred police officers and firefighters packed the hall outside the House chamber yesterday, applauding lawmakers who voted against the bill and complaining to those who voted for it.

“If you destroy that middle-class fabric, you’re going to destroy the economy, and destroy the country,’’ said Robert Costa, a 53-year-old police officer from Plympton. “It’s because of the unions that everybody makes a decent wage nowadays.’’

Under the legislation, mayors and other local officials would be given unfettered authority to set health insurance copayments and deductibles for their employees, after a 30-day discussion period with unions. The copayments and deductibles would have to be at least equal to those offered to state employees through the Group Insurance Commission. Only the share of premiums paid by local employees would remain on the bargaining table.

If the unions agree to the terms set by local officials, 10 percent of the savings from the first year would be given back to union members. If unions object to the terms imposed by local officials, 20 percent of the savings from the first year would go into a special account to help retirees and workers with major medical costs.

The legislation resembles a plan that Patrick introduced in January. Like the House plan, Patrick’s bill gives unions a brief window, until July 1, to discuss health plan changes with local officials before the officials would be allowed to set copayments and deductibles without union input. But the governor’s bill did not specify how much of the savings would go back to union workers, leaving that issue to regulators.

Patrick’s plan would be mandatory for cities and towns, whereas the House bill would allow communities to cut their costs only if local officials vote to do so.

Yesterday, Patrick said he prefers a mandatory version, to ensure that cities and towns impose health insurance changes.

Business groups and local officials hope that the Senate follows the House’s lead.

“Anything that does not do at least what the House did is not going to solve the problem,’’ said Linda M. Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. Her group sponsored a recent study that showed that rising health care costs are gobbling up millions of dollars in state aid that was intended for local schools.

Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of Massachusetts Municipal Association, asserted that the House plan would benefit local workers by preventing layoffs, cutting health premiums, and providing a share of the savings to union members.

Beckwith, whose organization has been lobbying in favor of the bill, said the goal is not to slash workers’ health plans.

“It’s to provide the cost relief to protect services and jobs,’’ he said, “because otherwise everything is getting squeezed out of municipal budgets.’’

Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.