Lawmakers prepare for municipal health reform hearings

Lawmakers prepare for municipal health reform hearings

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Gov. Deval Patrick’s bill to force cities, towns, and unions to bargain for cheaper health care or be forced to join state-run health plans will get a public hearing next week, the first major piece of legislation to undergo public scrutiny in the new session.

“Excellent,” Patrick said Tuesday when asked about his bill moving to the hearing stage.

The Joint Committee on Public Service, chaired by Rep. John Scibak of South Hadley and Sen. Katherine Clark of Melrose, has scheduled a hearing for Tuesday at 10 a.m. in the Gardner Auditorium, when they expect to take testimony on Patrick’s bill and others related to municipal health reform.

Unions and many local officials, including Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, are expected to testify at a time when collective bargaining rights and power of public employee unions are being debated across the country in response to the legislative battle in Wisconsin over Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to curtail collective bargaining.

Patrick’s bill would require cities and towns to join the state Group Insurance Commission unless they can negotiate with local unions to achieve savings comparable to those they would achieve under the state plan or prove they have less expensive plans in place already. The legislation would also force all municipal retirees onto Medicare, an option available to municipalities but one that requires approval from a city council or town meeting.

The administration anticipates the reforms could collectively save cities and towns $120 million in fiscal 2012 if enacted quickly — fiscal 2012 begins July 1.

“First of all it’s important on its merits, but it’s important to do it sooner rather than later because if the municipalities are going to get a full 12-month value from those savings they need to be able to start that transition soon,” Patrick said.

Geoffrey Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA), said municipalities are appreciative of Patrick’s recognition that the status quo is crippling municipal budgets, but the association intends to push for a traditional “plan design” proposal, filed by Rep. Stephen Kulik, that would allow management to set deductibles and co-pays on health plans without collectively bargaining.

“Our top priority is passage of what we call plan design authority, the ability to shape plans and set deductibles and co-pays up to what the state has,” Beckwith said. “While we definitely applaud the governor’s recognition that the status quo can’t stand, we look forward to working with the governor and the legislature to have a simple, transparent, flexible and powerful bill that provides relief and savings to communities in every corner of the state.”

The MMA supports pushing retirees onto Medicare, but Beckwith said his members oppose Patrick’s proposal to share some cost savings achieved through these reforms with employees in the form of salary or other benefits.

“The employees will already get a reduction in their premiums. Since health costs are going up, it’s not as though there’s cash on the table. For many communities this will just mean a smaller increase,” Beckwith said.

Employee unions argue they are entitled to share in some of the savings because they have forfeited wage increases and other benefits over the years to preserve their health care plans.

Tim Sullivan, legislative and communications director for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said the labor group would be ready to testify next week. Sullivan said unions “have been first to the table to try to pursue compromise” on municipal health care and claimed “we’ve been very close many times.”

While pledging to engage in “shared sacrifices” that might be featured in a reform bill, Sullivan said, “Shared sacrifice does not mean a total erasure of basic rights.”

Sullivan said talks have always broken down when municipal officials and the MMA have pushed for rights to be taken away. “Their agenda has been to get us out of the way,” Sullivan said. “We will continue to be willing to deliver savings so long as we have a voice in how they’re achieved.”

Private sector chieftains have played a role in reducing union membership rates, Sullivan said, and eyes are now turning to the public sector unions. “It’s not a coincidence,” he said, claiming an anti-union push has eroded quality of life measures like wages and pensions.

It was not immediately clear who would testify on behalf of the Patrick administration, but Patrick is not scheduled to be around. He is due to leave Monday for a 10-day trade mission to Israel and Great Britain.

Proponents of municipal health care law changes have called for action on legislation early in the 2011-2012 session, with the goal of helping cities and towns trim costs in the fiscal year that begins July 1.