EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 28, 2013

Zanni wants unions to join state health plan

By Brian Messenger

---- — METHUEN — The city’s health insurance negotiation with municipal and school unions is taking center stage as Mayor Stephen Zanni finalizes his budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The mayor wants the unions to join the state Group Insurance Commission (GIC) plan, which he believes will offer greater cost savings than two other health plans now under consideration.

“I think that’s the way to go,” said Zanni. “This is one area (where) I think the city can make out. But I also think it’s good for the unions.”

Methuen’s unions bargain for health insurance collectively as the Public Employees Commission (PEC). Zanni said the PEC has already seen presentations from Blue Cross Blue Shield and the city’s current health care administrator, Tufts Health Plan Navigator.

Zanni said the PEC will meet Wednesday with a GIC representative to compare the three options.

“I hope to show the differences,” Zanni said.

Zanni said he’d like to come to an agreement with the PEC in the coming weeks. The mayor will present an operating budget to the City Council in late May, and Zanni said a health insurance agreement will serve as a key piece of the budget puzzle.

“The big concern right now is health insurance and what direction the PEC is going to go in,” said City Auditor Thomas Kelly. “The GIC is still on the table, as far as the mayor is concerned.”

Most state employees are covered by the GIC. Municipalities were given the option to join two years ago by the state Legislature.

The local GIC option serves as leverage for municipal negotiators because if talks stall, the employees can be moved into the state plan. But such a move would require City Council approval and potentially the approval of an arbitrator if the PEC disputes the change.

Zanni pushed for Methuen’s inclusion into the GIC last year, but the PEC instead negotiated a new plan that officials said reduced health insurance costs from $11.3 million last year to $9.8 million in the fiscal year ending June 30.

Methuen currently pays 62 percent of the cost of each employee’s health plan, and the employee pays the rest. The PEC represents more than 1,000 municipal and school employees.

The largest union in the city is the Methuen Education Association, which represents teachers. MEA president and PEC member Ann DiBenedetto did not respond to an email seeking comment for this story.