In a turnabout, governor breaks with unions on health care plans
For much of his first term, Governor Deval Patrick helped protect public employee unions from dramatic increases in their members’ health care insurance costs.
Yesterday, Patrick joined House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo in calling for a significant curtailing of organized labor’s influence over the health care plans of municipal employees, retirees, and elected officials, proposing that cities and towns receive far greater power to enact major changes without union assent.
The governor’s proposal, as part of his budget plan for next fiscal year, represents a momentous shift in the political landscape, as labor unions, state leaders, and local officials tussle over how to rein the exorbitant costs of the often-generous insurance plans. Patrick’s proposal aligns him with Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston and others who have pushed for public employees to pay a greater share of their health care costs.
“It’s a pretty bold move and one that I strongly support,’’ said Jay Ash, Chelsea’s city manager.
For many years, public employees have enjoyed health care plans that paid as much 90 percent of their premiums, with copayments for office visits as low as $5. But with the rapid escalation of health care costs since 2000, municipalities have devoted an ever-greater share of their budgets — in some cases 20 percent — to insuring workers, retirees, and some elected officials.
Four years ago, Patrick signed a bill that gave cities and towns the option of joining the state Group Insurance Commission, a larger and more flexible plan that gives local public employee unions no say over premiums, copays, and other details.
But that measure, which Patrick used to promise municipalities a “new partnership with state government,’’ failed to live up to expectations. Only 31 communities and regional government bodies, such as regional school districts, joined the GIC, and none has this year, in the face of strong union opposition.
The law that Patrick embraced in 2007 gave public employee unions the power to block migration into the GIC by requiring at least 70 percent of a committee of local union representatives to sign on. And with higher health care costs a near certainty for anyone in the GIC, few unions took the plunge.
Now, Patrick wants to strip unions of what has proven to be an effective veto power. Under his proposal, public employee unions must willingly join the GIC or negotiate with municipal officials to arrive at a local plan that would be similar in cost for employees, retirees, and elected officials, and thus cheaper for cities and towns.
Compared with municipalities, the GIC historically experienced lower cost increases. One factor was its size. It is the largest group insurer in the state, representing 300,000 people, which gives it greater bargaining power with providers. But its ability to increase employee copays and deductibles without union negotiations has also allowed the commission to shift some costs to plan participants.
Patrick’s proposal goes much further than he said he was willing to go during last fall’s campaign for governor, when Republican opponent Charles D. Baker accused him of failing to stand up to unions, even as communities were suffering under the weight of health care costs.
“The governor is saying municipalities must have reasonable benefit packages,’’ Jay Gonzalez, Patrick’s secretary of administration and finance, said in an interview.
Patrick’s change of heart comes two weeks after DeLeo, an ally of organized labor, took a surprising turn himself by opening the new legislative session with a call to force all cities and towns into the GIC, with or without union support.
“Our current fiscal climate demands that we move in this direction,’’ DeLeo said. “I can no longer permit our residents to suffer because we are so slow to progress in this area.’’
One big question mark now is Senate President Therese Murray, who has admonished municipalities for coming to the state for help after having agreed to the generous benefit packages. Yesterday, Murray said little, releasing a brief statement that said only that she looked forward to reviewing what Patrick proposed.
“The governor’s plan will bring plenty of interest, and I look forward to receiving the full details of his proposal,’’ she said.
Leaders of public employee unions have taken the position in this debate that any changes ought to be settled at the bargaining table. Employee benefits were won in collective bargaining and should only be taken away in negotiations, they say.
Unions were largely quiet on Patrick’s proposal yesterday. Several labor leaders did not return calls or e-mails. Robert J. Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, promised in a statement that unions “stand ready to be part of the solution,’’ but called for preserving collective bargaining rights.
To be sure, Patrick’s proposal to overhaul municipal health care is far from being law, as it must first be passed in the state House and Senate, where many lawmakers remain allied with labor. Last year, despite promises of action, a concerted effort to give cities and towns more authority ultimately died.
Sean Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.