Globe Editorial

Senate, governor should opt for House plan on health savings

May 25, 2011

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THE STATE Senate’s plan for curbing runaway municipal health costs, which is expected to be approved as soon as tomorrow, would be a step in the right direction. But the plan approved earlier last month by the House remains the surest way to protect taxpayers and prevent the need for widespread layoffs of municipal workers in cash-strapped cities and towns.

In seeking to reconcile the two bills, Senate negotiators — and those for Governor Patrick — should opt for the more surefire savings of the House plan.

The House plan would allow cities and town to save an estimated $100 million by placing their workers in the state’s less-costly Group Insurance Commission or similar plan. The House also granted municipal managers unilateral power — within reason — to increase co-payments and deductibles if negotiations with workers fail to reach an agreement after 30 days. Wisely, the Senate plan also eliminates the veto power over health plan changes now enjoyed by public unions. But it sets up a clunky three-member panel to determine if the changes proposed by managers match the health benefits given to state workers. The Senate measure also returns more of the health care cost savings to the workers in the first year than does the House.

Municipal health care costs have crippled cities and towns. The average family premium for city and town workers runs 37 percent higher than the typical private-sector policy, and 21 percent higher than that of state employees. “Unsustainable,’’ is the word used over and over again by mayors and town managers who have been trying to deal with double-digit health care cost increases each year.

If unencumbered by weakening amendments, the Senate proposal would certainly be acceptable to most municipalities. And it enjoys the support of good government groups, including the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. But the three-person panels — with one member each appointed by unions, city officials, and the governor’s budget chief — would represent an extra bureaucratic hurdle in what has already proven to be a torturous process of enacting even modest, commonsense changes in municipal health plans. Far off the radar screen, future governors and union allies could tie the hands of future mayors and city councilors by appointing pro-union panel members.

It was the House, prodded by Speaker Robert DeLeo, that took the tough vote to give more power to managers of cities and towns — and took it first. And its version still stands as the best way to lower premiums and protect basic municipal services while guaranteeing high-quality health insurance for municipal workers.