Bill advances to protect health insurance for Hampshire Council of Governments retirees

  • The Hampshire County Courthouse, as seen from Gothic Street in Northampton, is home to the Hampshire Council of Governments.   GAZETTE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 8/23/2019 2:58:27 PM
Modified: 8/23/2019 2:58:13 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Retirees and their surviving spouses who get their health insurance through the Hampshire Council of Governments (HCG), and who have been at risk of losing coverage at the end of August, will have their benefits protected through legislation adopted by the Massachusetts Senate this week.

Senators Thursday agreed to move the health care contracts for 52 retirees and their surviving spouses, as well as a handful of remaining employees, to the state’s Group Insurance Commission.

The legislation also provides the state’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance $250,000 in unspent fiscal year 2019 money to make monthly payments to the Hampshire Group Insurance Trust for the cost of these health care contracts through June 2020, or until the retirees have chosen new health care plans with the Group Insurance Commission.

The action comes as HCG officials have repeatedly said they wouldn’t be able to afford the insurance premium payments to the Hampshire County Group Insurance Trust beyond Aug. 31.

That concern prompted Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, with support from the other members of the local delegation representing Hampshire County communities, to file legislation that aimed to ensure that the eventual dissolution of the successor agency to Hampshire County Government would be done in an orderly manner.

Other parts of her bill, which address important aspects of shutting down the agency, remain outstanding, including pension liabilities, with $5.9 million owed to the Hampshire Regional Retirement System; the status of the historic Hampshire County Courthouse, under renovation in downtown Northampton; and other financial obligations.

Jared Freedman, chief of staff for Comerford, said Friday that health care issues were the time-sensitive piece and needed to be taken up by the Senate before September.

“The legislative delegation remains committed to moving the rest of the legislation forward because dissolution (of HCG) is not complete without it,” Freedman said.

He added that the Executive Office for Administration and Finance is currently reviewing the additional pieces of Comerford’s bill. 

The Statehouse News Service reported that Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues described the action as “the first step in a larger conversation about how we deal with the dissolution of the Hampshire Council of Governments.”

“This fund would ensure continuing health care coverage and related benefits for the retired employees of Hampshire County and their surviving spouses,” Rodrigues said.

The House of Representatives is expected to take up the same legislation next week and, if passed there, will then need to be signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker.

Rus Peotter, chairman of the HCG board, was on vacation Friday and unable to respond to inquires about the Senate’s action.

The $5.9 million appropriation needed for the Hampshire County Retirement System is based on an estimate of the unfunded liability for pension payments to HCG retirees. Only 10 of them worked for HCG, while 55 previously were employed at the former Hampshire County nursing home Hampshire Care.

The bill would also turn over the courthouse to the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, which could sell or rent the building but would need to offer the property to Northampton for nominal consideration before this happened. The legislation additionally specifies that if the state agency were to sell or rent the building, the courthouse grounds and any historic items within it would remain available to the public.

Minor aspects of the legislation include conveying a cell tower in Goshen to the state capital asset agency for continued use by state police and the Hampshire County mutual aid system; conveying rights and titles for county roads to the Department of Transportation, which is already managing and maintaining these roads; and conveying HCG’s authority to appoint members to the board of the Hampshire Regional Housing Authority to town select boards.

As part of the process of closing up shop, officials at HCG have worked to sell or transfer its programs, with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments already picking up a portion of the procurement program. Other HCG services have migrated to other agencies, such as the Retired Senior Volunteer Program being taken over by Community Action and the Tobacco Free Hampshire County Coalition going to the Collaborative for Educational Services.

HCG also laid off two employees but has not yet been able to sell off its energy businesses.

If the entire bill doesn’t pass, HCG officials have said that cities and towns would be liable for the legacy costs from the agency, including retirement expenses, health benefits and a workers’ compensation claim.

Local officials, though, have confidence that the state will pass the legislation and have said that if they are asked to cover costs, they will argue against it.

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz earlier suggested a bailout by the Legislature is the right move. “There’s obviously lots of examples of state agencies that have gotten into financial difficulties and the commonwealth has seen fit to bail them out,” he said.

Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said this week that Amherst was never a part of HCG and that it wouldn’t be responsible for any of the legacy costs.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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