Selectmen vote to initiate changes to town health benefits

Written by Administrator
 | Wednesday, 21 December 2011 14:54

In a unanimous vote, the Board of Selectmen gave their approval to adopt Massachusetts’ recently enacted Municipal Health Insurance Reform Act, giving Town Manager Richard MacDonald greater authority in negotiating town employees’ health insurance plans. Towns and cities across the state, including Marshfield, Plymouth and Salem, also ratified the process, which was signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick in July.

“The state has given the town permission to control health care costs, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” said MacDonald. “On average, it’s 15 percent (of a municipality’s budget); for Duxbury it’s 11.5 percent.” MacDonald said Duxbury budgeted $6.9 million for fiscal year 2012, but that he expected it to go up four percent the following year. As part of the legislation, MacDonald is required to report to the state Duxbury’s projected savings, a figure he estimates to be $1 million. Part of the savings will come from negotiating with the town’s seven employee unions as one

rather than meeting and agreeing to individual plans. While it’s expected to lower the premiums for members, further cost savings to the town will be realized through higher co-pays and deductibles for employees.

Now that the selectmen have voted to move forward with the plan, representatives from each of the unions and one representing retirees will have 30 days to negotiate with town management and then vote on a collective plan. It will be a weighted vote based on eligible members of each union, with teachers having a majority of members. Retirees will get a 10 percent share of the vote.

Tony Vitalli, the representative of the Patrolman’s Union said his initial plan is to do more listening than talking.

“I want to wait and see what happens and go from there,” said Vitalli. “I think everyone’s taking a wait and see approach.”

The president of the Duxbury Teachers’ Association, Nancy Chadwick, said she was disappointed with the initial contact.

“I was extremely disappointed that for a process that’s started and is so incredibly important, that unions were given one week’s notice,” said Chadwick, noting this is an issue that affects employees who are very often residents. “When you look at such a large teaching staff, we’re close to 300, we’re teaching the children of Duxbury and over half of the teachers are residents.”

Union members attending the selectmen’s meeting listened carefully as a Peter Savage of Cook and Company in Marshfield, the town’s longtime insurance advisor, explained the process. Firefighters and police lined the back, closest to the fire exits, while teachers sat nearer the front, some correcting children’s homework with red pens as they listened. The major concern presented by those employees affected by the potential change to their insurance appeared to be staying with the Blue Cross plan they have. Shawn Dahlen, chairman of the board of selectmen, was quick to reassure them.

“It’s essentially tailoring the benefits within the existing plan, but changing things within the deductibles,” said Dahlen. “If your co-pay is now $10, it may be $20. You’re not changing doctors, you’re not changing where you’re going today.”

Dahlen noted that any changes to Duxbury employees’ health insurance will still be more affordable than many plans in the private sector. In his private business, he said he pays 50 percent of his employees’ premiums. Currently, Duxbury contributes 75 percent to town employee health insurance benefits.

MacDonald confirmed the town wants to continue with the same plan and maintain the same percentage ratio. “It’s my intent to stay with Blue Cross,” said MacDonald. “Hopefully we can resolve the spiraling cost of health care with our employees.”

For firefighter union representative Doug Cunningham, the issue is more personal. He works extra shifts because he has a son with special needs who has up to four doctors’ appointments each week. If the changes pass, he can expect his personal costs to go up in the form of co-pays and deductibles.

“They have to look into it,” said Cunningham. “I hope we can move forward in a positive light.”

Nancy Chadwick left the meeting reassured by the presentation. As the teachers’ voice in the upcoming negotiations, she intends to hold the selectmen and Savage to their word.

“We’re pretty happy to hear the Board of Selectmen and Peter Savage go on record saying they support staying with Blue Cross and Blue Shield.”