Well, it would seem that the Massachusetts House’s vote to move municipal workers into the Group Insurance Commission has captured the attention of some national commentators.
OK, so let’s have a primer for our out-of-state friends (or in-staters not used to following local things).
The problem: Massachusetts has the highest health care costs in the country. Like everywhere else, health care inflation is eating into local budgets, forcing layoffs, service cuts and/or tax increases. Many Massachusetts towns’ workers have unions that bargain for their health care benefits, and they are expensive.
State workers in Massachusetts are in something called the Group Insurance Commission. Led by the irrepressible Dolores Mitchell, the GIC has good benefits by most standards, and has generally had much lower cost increases than the muni plans. And they do it by encouraging quality rather than quantity of care, as well as by tougher methods such as more restricted provider networks.
Now, this idea is absolutely nothing new. It is not a blindside attack. Moving muni unions in the GIC has been discussed for years. Former Speaker of the House Sal DiMasi — the (now allegedly-disgraced) progressive hero of our health care law — suggested that muni unions should be moved into the GIC back in 2007, the early days of the Patrick administration. Back then, Gov. Patrick “responded coolly”, and the deal that was eventually hammered out stated that any muni union would have to have 70% member approval to move into the GIC.
Some muni unions made the switch, like in Melrose, a suburb north of Boston. Here’s mayor Robert Dolan:
Dolan estimated that Melrose has saved over $3 million since joining the GIC in fiscal 2009, bolstered by a wage freeze that municipal unions also agreed to as a way to save jobs. Despite a 10 percent increase in premiums within the GIC last year, Dolan said it pales in comparison to the increases he saw when he first became mayor that ranged between 17 percent and 27 percent.
“The GIC is the single greatest health plan in the country for municipal employees, no question about it,” said Dolan, who admitted that he benefitted from strong cooperation with union leaders that allowed him to make his case to employees in a sometimes one-on-one presentation.
“I was lucky because my unions were willing to listen,” he said.
And they were willing to bargain. Collectively. But many were not. And given the current situation, even Gov. Patrick — who for years resisted the call to coerce muni unions into the GIC — has changed his mind and supports the new proposal.
And let’s be clear: This is an idea that is being pushed largely by cities and towns themselves — like Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone:
Curtatone said since the late 1970s, Somerville has actually bargained down city employees’ health insurance, giving them other perks and pay instead. He said the GIC would save city employees $2 million too, and allow the city to avoid layoffs.
“You’re saving union jobs, here,” Curtatone said. “[Union members are] paying, too. They’re paying out of their pocket, and they’re paying by losing jobs.”
Is it a takeaway of certain collective bargaining rights? Yes it is. Is it a wholesale, out-and-out war on collective bargaining rights a la Wisconsin? Nope.
The people most supportive of the House’s action are not right-wing ideologues, looking to kneecap the labor movement. They’re mayors and aldermen and town councils trying to figure out a way to deliver services in an era of cratering revenues and skyrocketing health care premiums. It’s a real crisis, not a pretext.
Yes, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, particularly on process grounds. It will be a major adjustment for those who are used to their current insurance. Yes. But in the end, muni workers will have health insurance, and more job security due to more stable municipal finances. Their work is important. We want to keep them on. This is Massachusetts.