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Medford mayor backs state insurance push

Posted by Matt Byrne  April 15, 2011 10:04 AM

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Mayor Michael J. McGlynn was among 13 mayors to sign on support to a state House of Representatives budget proposal that would empower municipal leaders to determine unilaterally key provisions of employee health care plans, according to a statement by the group.

The support was announced by the decade-old Metro Mayors Coalition, a regional effort run by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council comprised of 13 mayors from cities around and including Boston.

"This provision offers municipal leaders a tool to mitigate rising health care costs. It comes as welcome news for cities and towns that have been asking for a way to relieve the strain on local budgets,” said Revere Mayor Thomas Ambrosino in the statement.

If the new rules survive the budget process, they would empower McGlynn to set copayments and deductibles for city unions' heath plans. While bargaining remains a part of the process, unions would have a window to trade offers before the new rules would kick in.

The proposal -- released Wednesday by the state House Ways & Means Committee -- outlines identical cuts to local aid and some state programs that Governor Deval Patrick's Jan. 26 budget suggested. But the House as a whole must first pass its version before the Senate can deliberate on more potential changes The two bills would then be combined and put before Patrick, who has power to veto sections or individual line-items.

While Patrick has insisted that whatever changes are enacted labor must be at the table, the plan would allow officials such as McGlynn authority to mandate city employees join the state's Group Insurance Commission plan more easily, an effort already being explored in the city.

At present, procedures to enter the state plan are intricate and sometimes lengthy, requiring unions to come to a majority decision to join.

McGlynn, meanwhile, has said he will continue to pursue joining the GIC while the legislature presses forward.

Currently Medford is self-insured, McGlynn said, a now-rare form of coverage in which the city pays directly for only the care or treatment its employees use.

For unions, which are highly protective of their collective bargaining rights, health care provisions are often source for bitter dispute as the sagging economy has forced municipalities to attempt extracting cost-saving concessions during contract talks.

Peter Cook, partner at Cook and Co., a Marshfield consulting firm that specializes in controlling health costs contracted by Medford, said all eyes will continue to be on lawmakers.

"It's not long before we are in a new fiscal year, and we don't have any guidelines from the Legislature yet," Cook said in phone interview this week.

Health care costs in Medford rise about 10 percent a year, he said, and predicted the legislation to alter the health bargaining rules may not be passed in time to impact this current budget cycle.

The circumstances have placed communities in a difficult position, he said.

"In the past we've been able to sort of reach the budgets with many of the municipalities without having such a severe lay-off. I'm not sure that happens this time, because of the restraints on the municipalities," he said.

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