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Easthampton City Council tables health insurance reform

Most of the 33 members of the public at the meeting were city employees or retirees, some of whom expressed concern that there was not enough proof that changing how the city seeks health insurance coverage would save money and that the change could limit their collective bargaining rights or even increase their insurance costs.

The council voted to continue the public hearing on whether to adopt a state health insurance reform law enacted in 2011 that allows local governments to update or change health insurance plans up to the same level that state employees receive. In the past, municipalities had to get approval of every union before changing insurance, which some city officials said is a lengthy, difficult process.

The new law, if adopted, sets a 30-day window for those negotiations before a state consultant is called to work with both sides to decide the issue. The law also dictates that communities that save on health insurance costs through the process must share up to 25 percent of the savings with employees.

The council voted 5-3 to table the measure until Finance Director Melissa Zawadzki could present them with a reliable estimate of how much could be saved by adopting the law. She told the council she has sent requests for quotes to two insurance companies providing similar coverage, but said she did not know when she would receive those numbers.

Councilors Joseph P. McCoy, Joy E. Winnie, Salem Derby, Nathaniel P. Ziegler and Daniel D. Rist voted in favor. Donald L. Cykowski, Chester A. Ogulewicz Jr. and Daniel C. Hagan voted against the measure and said they were opposed to adopting the law. Council President Justin P. Cobb was absent because he is undergoing hip surgery.

Mayor Michael A. Tautznik told the council that allowing the city to shop around for different health insurance plans could protect it if the costs of the current plan were to increase. “It will lead to staff layoffs and reduced services,” he said of the possible increases.

Rist said other communities that have adopted the law have seen “significant savings” as a result. “We have an obligation to our taxpayers,” he said.

Both the City Council Rules and Government Regulations Subcommittee and the city’s Insurance Advisory Board recommended the council not adopt the law.

“The current system is not broken, so why are we trying to fix it?” said Ogulewicz, a member of the subcommittee.

The city currently gets insurance through the Hampshire County Group Insurance Trust, a part of the Hampshire Council of Governments. Ogulewicz said that insurance rates through the trust have been “relatively flat” for three to six years, depending on which plan employees choose.

James Dunham, a member of the city’s Retirement Board, said that the Trust has $25 million “set aside to defray any increased cost” and so prices are not likely to rise.

He was also critical of the provision of the law that gives employees, retirees and the mayor 30 days to come to an agreement. If they do not, one person from each side will meet with a state-appointed third party, who will make the final decision.

McCoy argued that adopting the law does not mean the city can no longer get insurance through the Trust, but would give it flexibility so that the Trust would have an incentive to keep costs low.

Hagan and Cykowski both received applause from audience members when they pledged not to OK the law.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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