Easthampton sides with employees, nixes proposed insurance change
EASTHAMPTON — A packed room of approximately 80 people — most of them city employees or retirees — gave the City Council a standing ovation Wednesday after the panel opted not to change the way workers negotiate for and receive health insurance.
The council voted 6-2 not to take the option provided by a 2011 state health insurance reform law that allows local governments to change employees’ health insurance plans as long as they maintain the same level of coverage that state employees have.
Mayor Michael A. Tautznik and Councilors Daniel D. Rist and Nathaniel P. Ziegler supported the measure on the grounds that changing health insurance plans could save the city money, but employees argued that it would limit their voice in negotiating health care and could result in poorer coverage with higher costs.
“I think this was the right thing to do,” said Jason Dunham, head of the city firefighters union and a member of the city’s Insurance Advisory Board. “We don’t want to lose our collective bargaining rights.”
Currently, changes in insurance have to be approved by each union, which can be a lengthy, difficult process, Tautznik said at the first public hearing on the topic on Nov. 7.
The new option, which Northampton adopted in September, sets a 30-day window for unions to negotiate with the city over any proposed changes before a state consultant is called in to work with both sides to decide the issue.
Council President Justin P. Cobb said he could see no evidence the city would save money after reviewing quotes from insurance companies. “I need to know before I do something new that we’re going to be saving money,” he said.
The city currently gets insurance through the Hampshire County Group Insurance Trust, a part of the Hampshire Council of Governments. Dunham said the trust is the best insurance option because there have been no rate increases for employees for three years and the trust has $25 million set aside to defray any increased cost.
Finance Director Melissa Zawadzki said the trust has been “inflexible” about changing insurance plans that would save the city money, and Rist said adopting the law might force them to be more competative.
Councilor Joy E. Winnie voted against the change, but like Zawadzki, she warned that the city was not going to stop trying to reduce its health insurance costs.
“Within a year or two years, we’re going to be back in this room having the same debate,” she said.
Rebecca Everett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.