NORTHAMPTON – On Oct. 4, City Council adopted the state’s 2011 health care reform law to address rising municipal health care costs. The law is designed to save time and money by providing a framework for amending existing health plans. According to a state-issued press release, 127 municipalities have adopted the law and saved about $175 million total in insurance premiums.
The reform law empowers the municipal authority to propose either specific changes to local health plans or adoption of the state’s Group Insurance Commission (GIC) plan. A Public Employee Committee (PEC) composed of bargaining unit representatives may negotiate changes to the proposal for up to 30 days. If the city and the PEC fail to reach a settlement, a panel composed of one representative each from the PEC, the city, and the state reviews the proposal and has the final vote.
Critics of the law fear it undermines the collective bargaining rights of public employees and retirees by limiting negotiations to 30 days before ceding two-thirds of the decision-making power to the state and municipal authority.
Councilor Pamela C. Schwartz voted to approve the law on first reading last month, but changed her mind after further exploring the details of the law. “It’s a shifting of power and negotiating strength, and so I’m deeply concerned about that,” she said.
Proponents of the law argue it preserves the historic role of unions while establishing a time parameter to expedite reform. Councilor Maureen T. Carney said the result is a decision-making process that “does remain in the arena of bargaining; however, it is no longer traditional bargaining.”
Mayor David J. Narkewicz conceded the law “does give the city more leverage in that negotiation,” but maintained the new process lowers costs significantly for the city while providing quality health care to public employes. To mitigate its impact on union strength, the law requires cities to redistribute up to 25 percent of savings to public employees and retirees.
Councilor David A. Murphy said despite the law’s imperfections, “it’s the one tool the Commonwealth chose to give to us and I don’t see how we cannot exercise that tool. We didn’t design it, but it’s the only tool we have.” Councilor Owen Freeman-Daniels echoed Murphy’s statement, adding, “It really isn’t as though the GIC is really a bad thing, because the GIC is what the state employees get. It’s a level of care that the state feels comfortable providing its employes, so it’s a decent level of insurance.”
Schwartz objected to Murphy’s premise that the law should be adopted by virtue of being the only tool provided by the state. “I want to raise our definition of success in solving this problem,” she said.
Councilor William H. Dwight said the absence of union leaders from the City Council meeting “speaks louder in many respects.” He suggested the absence of dissent might signal union approval. “The burden is…on the representative units to make their case known, and make it known to us,” said Dwight.
Councilor Paul D. Spector added that the absence of dissent may be due to the current mayor’s success in reaching across political divides to solve problems. “His fairness in dealing with all parties is pretty well known,” Spector said.
Spector and Carney also expressed concern about the long-term effects of expanding executive power. Carney added, “I haven’t been convinced that we can’t come to a resolution in our traditional forms of bargaining that we’ve had up to this point.”
The City Council adopted the measure by a vote of six to three.
Photo courtesy Brian Turner via Flickr. Used under creative commons license.