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Scot Lehigh

From labor, a health care Trojan horse

By Scot Lehigh
April 22, 2011

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JUST WHEN we are finally starting to make progress toward breaking the logjam on municipal health care costs, labor’s legislative lumberjacks have sprung into action to re-jam the logs.

For the progress, we can thank House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Ways and Means Chairman Brian Dempsey, who have put forward a bold reform. Their proposal would give cities and towns the authority to alter health insurance plans without negotiating each and every change with the local unions, as long as copays and deductibles are comparable to those state workers pay. If doing so would leave to greater savings, municipalities would also have the unencumbered option of joining the Group Insurance Commission, which provides plans for state workers.

That would be a meaningful change. Currently, very generous local health care plans, combined with rapidly escalating health care costs, are consuming ever larger shares of municipal budgets. Those rising costs have absorbed virtually all of recent increases in state education-reform dollars, while forcing other service cuts and layoffs.

In response to the House leadership plan, labor has rallied 50 House Democrats behind a proposal that’s billed as a compromise but would be better described as the Municipal Health Care Trojan Horse. Unions and municipal managers would have a 45-day period to negotiate health-plan changes, though no savings would be required. If they failed to reach agreement, the matter would go to arbitration.

This is absurdly wrong-headed. Although unions are now professing their eagerness to be part of the solution, they have long impeded community efforts to cut health care costs by enrolling with the GIC. Secondly, as Boston Municipal Research Bureau President Sam Tyler observes, this scheme would essentially reimpose binding arbitration on cities and towns, something voters eliminated when they passed Proposition 2 1/2 back in 1980. Although the Legislature reinstated a revised arbitration process for firefighters and police, arbitration awards now must be approved by the city’s appropriating body. That is, the city council or board of selectmen or aldermen.

The labor-backed “reform’’ would expand health-plan arbitration to all municipal employees. What’s more, arbitration awards would be binding on a city or town unless rejected by a two-thirds vote of the council or selectmen.

The effect of all that is that an unelected, unaccountable third party would frequently be the de facto decision-maker about local health care plans, notes Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association. And as we’ve seen in several high-profile Boston labor disputes, the arbitration process is frequently skewed toward labor.

To sum it all up then, the labor plan doesn’t represent any forward progress. Instead, it would be a big step back.

In an attempt to up the political ante, Bob Haynes, the state’s blustery AFL-CIO chief, has declared in a letter to legislators that this is a moment when they must make clear “what side you are on.’’

That’s actually right. What’s wrong is the way Haynes frames the choice; that is, as between hard-working, eager-to-compromise union members and “intractable, uncompromising’’ municipal management types. Rather, it’s between protecting the prerogatives of local unions or looking after the broader interests of all town taxpayers and residents.

That choice should be crystal clear. After all, what public employee unions are engaged in here is an effort to preserve local health benefits that are not only much better than most private-sector offerings, but also significantly more generous than the state’s well-regarded plans.

Further, the notion that bringing local benefits into a more reasonable balance constitutes a frontal assault on collective bargaining is simply silly. State employees don’t get to negotiate the details of their health plans. Nor do most private sector workers. Why, then, should municipal workers?

Now, Haynes is a paper tiger, one whose over-the-top antics often leave Beacon Hill decision-makers rolling their eyes.

But local unions do matter in legislative races. To counteract their electioneering influence, everyday residents need to let their lawmakers know that while unions consider this matter a labor litmus test, they see meaningful reform as a taxpayers’ issue — and that they, too, will be watching closely.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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