Opinion: Health Coverage Provision in the Fiscal-Year 2012 Budget

posted Apr 29, 2011, 11:51 AM by Elysse Magnotto-Cleary   [ updated Apr 29, 2011, 11:54 AM ]
By: Cleon H. Turner
State Representative, 1st Barnstable District


Last week, I co-sponsored Rep. Martin Walsh of Dorchester’s amendment to the health coverage provision of the Fiscal-Year 2012 budget that would have preserved collective bargaining for employees on all health coverage issues. There was no ability to vote on the Walsh amendment because of the vote on the leadership’s revised plan, which passed after a sudden vote was taken at 11:30 p.m. on the second night of budget debates. I did not vote in favor of leadership’s revised plan.


Leadership’s plan allows municipalities to unilaterally determine the manner of providing health care benefits to employees and to place employees’ health insurance coverage into the Group Insurance Commission (GIC) without providing any ability for negotiations with the employees. Since the plan requires the towns to sit with the unions and discuss the town’s proposal, one could argue that the employees have a seat at the table. However, sitting and listening to an explanation of a proposal is not considered “negotiations.”


While the result could have been worse for employees, it still seriously undermines long-standing employee rights and brings into question whether any future negotiated agreements between municipalities and their employees can be trusted.
Simply stated, the legislature should not be interfering with contractual relationships. I have been vigorous in my representation of the First Barnstable District in ensuring that legislation we pass respects contracts and the relationships between communities and employees. I also believe in fundamental fairness. Nothing upsets relationships more than the legislature meddling in contractual situation where parties have agreed on the parameters of their relationships, and nothing is more unfair than parties negotiating in good faith and then having one of those parties seek to change the terms of the agreement through legislation.
For example, in 1992, when the legislature essentially voided the contractual relationships communities had in regional school districts and the havoc that has ensued in Dennis and Yarmouth regarding school funding. Had the legislature left communities in regional school districts to their contracts with each other, Dennis and Yarmouth, as well as other communities around the state in similar circumstances would not be having the difficulties in their relationships that exist now.
In the case of the First Barnstable District and the health care issue, Dennis, provides an example of what has taken place over time regarding public employee benefits. I suspect these facts apply fairly well to what has taken place in other towns throughout the Cape and the commonwealth. I was a member of the Dennis Board of Selectmen for nine years and was involved in all of those budgets, all of those supplemental budgets and all of those negotiations with every employee union in the town. During that time, every negotiation of union contracts was voted on and supported by the Board of Selectmen and the Finance Committee before going to town meeting, and almost every one of the agreements was supported unanimously by voters at town meetings. In those instances where a particular negotiation was not completed in time for a regular town meeting, that agreement was placed on a later special town meeting warrant as a stand-alone article. My memory is that, if not all, then nearly all of those agreements were supported unanimously by town meeting. I don’t recall any Dennis town meeting that was stacked with town employees to get those agreements passed.
One can easily agree that the cost of health insurance has become a significant budget item for cities and towns. Something clearly needs to be done. Part of the question is whether we should mandate the elimination of collective bargaining as part of that solution. Should we strip employees of the right to negotiate over terms of change when the employees have not been the problem?  The problem is clearly the cost of health insurance premium.
We can applaud the increase in the numbers of people now covered by health insurance in Massachusetts, but many of those people and many small businesses struggle to pay the cost. We didn’t save any money; we merely shifted the cost to individuals and small business that struggle to make premium payments. Now we are engaged in another attempt to control costs by taking away rights of innocent parties to a negotiated agreement without the benefit of significant input from the parties losing the benefits. We still haven’t touched on the real problem: insurance premiums.

Health care discussions will now turn to reducing the costs of services provided by hospitals, clinics and other providers with very little discussion about the real elephant in the room: insurers whose premiums continue to rise with seemingly little justification. We should not continue to shift the cost to individuals and small businesses without, in some way, dealing with the cost of insurance. We should not be asking health care providers to reduce their costs without insisting on some control of insurance costs. Perhaps we can focus on those issues by eliminating the term, “the cost of health care” and replace it with the term, “the cost of health insurance.”

Union employees are not the problem (though it would be nice if they acknowledged the costs on local budgets and provide some concessions). Health care providers are not the problem. It seems to me that the unjustifiable premiums from insurance companies are the problem.