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Globe Editorial

Plan for health care savings deserves Patrick’s support

July 6, 2011

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DESPITE ITS pro-labor leanings, the Legislature has approved a state budget that limits the role of collective bargaining in determining health care benefits for city and town workers. Now Governor Patrick must put aside his own political fears about alienating organized labor and - like the Legislature - make the tough decision.

Many municipalities can’t provide basic services if forced to keep up with rising health care costs. A provision in the Legislature’s budget could save cities and towns up to $100 million by placing their workers in the state’s less-costly Group Insurance Commission, or a similar health insurance plan, over the objection of municipal unions.

Patrick sidestepped a question about the measure during a Sunday appearance on “Face the Nation’’ with Republican governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio, each of whom has made aggressive efforts to curb collective bargaining. This is a tougher position for a Democrat with strong labor backers. But the Legislature’s health care measure is nowhere near as far-reaching what Walker and Kasich have proposed, and in any case Patrick’s first duty must be to the communities of Massachusetts.

Patrick could send the bill back to the Legislature with amendments. That would be akin to killing it. Amendments open the way for additional attacks by organized labor and undermine a carefully crafted compromise by the House and Senate.

The House favored a straightforward bill that would grant municipal managers unilateral power to increase co-payments and deductibles if negotiations with public workers failed to reach an agreement after 30 days. The Senate passed a watered-down version that would have made it difficult for towns to join the GIC. The compromise gives the municipalities final authority while establishing a three-member panel - including a labor member - that ensures up to 25 percent of the savings in the first year will be returned to employees.

This compromise gives organized labor far more clout than in the House bill. The three-member panel could block changes that, in its view, ask too much from workers. But it also must approve changes in the co-pays and deductibles of municipal workers as long as they don’t exceed those of state workers.

That sounds like the “meaningful voice’’ for labor that Patrick has said he wants. He should sign this measure without alteration.