EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 4, 2013

City, unions eye higher health care deductibles

By Brian Messenger
bmessenger@eagletribune.com

---- — METHUEN — City and school employees would pay higher health insurance deductibles under a preliminary health care agreement between Mayor Stephen Zanni and a local labor coalition.

Zanni said the city is on the verge of switching health plans from Tufts Health Plan Navigator to Blue Cross Blue Shield. The change would increase the deductible for individual plans from $1,000 to $1,500 and from $2,000 to $3,000 for family plans.

The one-year agreement still requires approval from Methuen’s Public Employees Commission (PEC), which bargains for health insurance on behalf of municipal and School Department employees. The PEC last negotiated with Zanni on Wednesday.

“By next week, if they’re in agreement we’ll settle this,” said Zanni. “It was a good session. It’s like anything else. You have to take a hard line sometimes.”

Zanni had been pushing for Methuen to join the state Group Insurance Commission (GIC) plan as recently as this week. But yesterday, the mayor said the city stands to save $50,000 by joining Blue Cross Blue Shield, while the GIC will cost $111,000 more.

“Looking at the numbers, if Blue Cross Blue Shield comes out better than the GIC at this time, it’s a smart move,” said Zanni.

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 requires 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.

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. Several attempts to reach MEA president and PEC member Ann DiBenedetto for this story were unsuccessful.