By Steve LeBlanc Associated Press / April 27, 2011
BOSTON—Gov. Deval Patrick urged both sides to "dial down the rhetoric" in an increasingly bitter debate over whether to sharply limit the collective bargaining power of public employees over their health insurance benefits.
Patrick said Wednesday it's important to pass legislation to ease the soaring health care burden on local city and town budgets while also guaranteeing union leaders a seat at the negotiating table.
Patrick's comments came after the Massachusetts House voted 111-42 late Tuesday to approve a measure to dramatically strengthen the power of cities and towns to change public employee health plans.The Democratic governor praised the House for taking a difficult vote, but he wouldn't say whether he'd support the measure as written, noting that the Massachusetts Senate still has to weigh in.
Salem Evening News
Giving municipalities the same authority the state currently possesses to determine the copayments and deductibles included in such plans would save taxpayers an estimated $100 million a year. As one school advocacy group, Stand for Children, points out, the move will "give cities and towns tools to control health care costs, enabling them to save municipal jobs and invest in their schools while continuing to provide municipal employees with excellent benefits."Contrary to the union rhetoric, this provision does not gut workers' collective bargaining rights and will leave them with health benefits that by law must be equal to those provided by the state Group Insurance Commission and will in many cases be superior to those available in the private sector. (And does anyone who's perused the police salaries published here over the last few weeks doubt that those employees, at least, can afford to pay a few more bucks when they visit the doctor?)And while lowering employer premiums, it would also in many cases lower employees' weekly health insurance costs, as well.The huge sums being paid for employee benefits, along with cutbacks in state aid, have resulted in a significant decline in the level of government services. Speaking in Peabody on Wednesday, Michael Widmer of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation noted that health and pension costs alone — that's not including salaries — which consumed 13.5 percent of municipal budgets a decade ago, now account for 21 percent of all spending, and within another 10 years will gobble up 30 percent of available funds.That's why police and fire departments are being staffed at less than ideal levels. It's why some school committees are talking about laying off teachers and closing schools. And it's why people are having to pay for things, like having their kids play school sports or getting their trash picked up, that used to be covered by the property taxes they paid.