Time to take a stand on health care

On January 29, 2011, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

By Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone

(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

Last week Governor Patrick proposed a momentous change in how municipalities deliver health care to their employees, and the fate of this legislation will make or break many cities and towns across the state.

Currently, most municipalities are self-insured, like Somerville. Whenever a city employee goes to the doctor, the taxpayers get the bill. We contract with insurance providers like Harvard Pilgrim, Tufts and Blue Cross Blue Shield to use their negotiated rates with doctors and hospitals, but we are not part of a larger insurance pool and the money comes straight out of the City budget. If we want to change anything, we have to negotiate with our local collective bargaining units to make that change.

The State government does not work this way. All state employees are in something called the Group Insurance Commission (GIC), which provides top quality care at much more affordable rates to more than 300,000 members. How much more affordable? The City potentially could save $8.7 million a year by switching to the GIC.

That money can help preserve and improve services for the taxpayers, allowing them to get more of a bang for every dollar they pay to the City. This past year every new dollar the City raised through its property tax went straight into covering the rising cost of health coverage for City employees. It is an unsustainable situation and Governor Patrick is looking to give us the tools to get our health care costs under control.

The Governor’s proposal would allow the City to shift to the GIC or an equivalent plan for the next fiscal year. It is an absolute lifeline to communities that have cut meat and bone to balance their budgets in recent years.

If this passes, my administration absolutely will make a switch. If we select the GIC, City employees will have the choice between Harvard Pilgrim, Tufts, Fallon and Health New England, ranked 1, 3, 7 and 8 nationally among commercial health plans by U.S. News & World Report. The one major insurer not in the GIC is Blue Cross Blue Shield, ranked #12 by U.S. News & World Report.

As you can see, we’re still talking about top quality health care. We are not looking to take short cuts on quality. This is the same coverage that my wife, my sons and I will be receiving. However, we can get that top quality coverage at a much better rate because of the savings associated with being in a vastly larger pool.

Those savings also will be passed along to many of our employees in the form of lower weekly premium payments. And our employees, who pay different premium rates dependent upon which bargaining unit represents them (with our retirees paying the highest premiums), will all pay uniform rates for uniform benefits, which the right and fair thing to do.

More money to provide services for taxpayers, a budget crisis averted, top quality coverage, lower premiums for most of our employees and a fair deal for every City employee and retiree – this represents a win for everyone involved.

Speaker DeLeo already has signaled his support for the bill and our local delegation needs to join with him in order to alleviate the crushing burden of health coverage that has been placed upon cities and towns. This legislation must move swiftly in order to provide relief for the fiscal year that starts on July 1.

Municipalities deserve the same opportunity as the State to manage their health care costs. The current situation makes no one healthier. All it does is take increasingly more money away from the services we should be providing to our taxpayers, not to mention the jobs of the people who provide those services.

Governor Patrick is demonstrating the kind of no-nonsense leadership this state needs and municipalities need the no-nonsense passage of this bill to follow in short order. The health of this city depends on it.

 

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