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City inches toward unified health plan

April 18, 2012

WOONSOCKET – The City Council took a tentative first step this week toward trading in a hodgepodge of health care products the city offers various workers for a unified plan that will cover all classes of employees, including teachers, police, firefighters and municipal workers.
The idea was rolled out by Councilman Daniel Gendron as point of departure for continued exploration of the concept. Other members of the council quickly embraced the idea, which would, finance officials say, cut the cash-strapped city’s hefty health care costs.
Council President John Ward said the receiver in charge of bankrupt Central Falls has taken similar steps to streamline health care plans, and Woonsocket should follow suit voluntarily as a prudent austerity move.
“That kind of conversation now has to occur,” said Ward. “It has to include not only existing employees, but retirees should also have to help.”
Finance Director Thomas M. Bruce III says the city, including the Woonsocket Education Department, spends a combined sum of about $18 million a year for “at least a dozen” different health care benefit packages for its employees and retirement beneficiaries. Most of them are Blue Cross plans. Two United Health cover a small number of city workers, but a move is already afoot to transfer those workers to other plans within a few weeks.
Putting all health care beneficiaries under the umbrella of single plan is a textbook strategy of buying in bulk to drive down costs, said Bruce.
“You’d have the purchasing power of both the city and the school department,” said the finance director. “When you’re standardizing everyone into one group, all the pharmaceutical options and hospital contracts become more advantageous because of volume discount procurement.”
The disjointed and diverse nature of the plans offered city workers is a largely a reflection of what Bruce calls the “intricacies of collective bargaining.” Other plans emerged as supports for retiree beneficiaries who may have Medicare or other health care products for their principal coverage.
Bruce said even in a best-case scenario, it will probably never be possible to merge active-employee plans and retiree plans. But even with two major beneficiary groups instead of dozen, the city would still gain significant efficiencies in health care costs.
Members of the City Council discussed the concept for about 20 minutes Monday, addressing some of the hurdles they might encounter on the path toward consolidating health benefits, but they took no formal action other than placing on file a memo in which Gendron sketched the proposal.
“To me, the first thing we have to do is get all the contracts to expire at the same time,” said Councilman Marc Dubois. “Nobody is going to want to be the first one to budge or give up something.”
Gendron’s plan calls for establishing “one municipal negotiating committee” to deal with the all the unions, including the Woonsocket Teachers Guild. Gendron also wants enough diversity on the panel from members of the major unions and governing bodies, including the council and the School Committee, to keep the status of talks transparent for everyone involved.
Echoing Dubois, School Committeeman Chris Roberts, speaking from the spectator section, said the issue of transparency has been an obstacle in efforts to negotiate a 10 percent pay cut with members of the WTG. Mayor Leo Fontaine proposed the cut for all unions, including police, fire and municipal employees, several weeks ago, saying they were necessary for the balance of the fiscal year, in combination with a supplemental tax bill and other cost-cutting measures, to stave off a looming cash crunch that could lead to insolvency.
“Right now we’ve had some good conversations with our unions,” said Roberts. But, he said, “We always get to the point of, ‘What are the other unions doing?’”
In his memo proposing the idea, Gendron says, “I believe in these tumultuous times, it is imperative to establish a collaborative approach to solving Woonsocket’s financial crisis.”
With six different unions representing roughly a thousand workers in city deparments and the schools, getting everyone on the same page is bound to be challenging. But Detective Sgt. John Scully, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers local, says the membership is “willing to listen to almost anything to keep the city” from plunging into insolvency, as long as “it’s fair and equitable.”
Still, Scully says the police union has of late traded off on wages for improved health care benefits in collective bargaining. That’s left the department with the third-lowest police wages in the state.
“Our health care is one of the good things we have,” said Scully. “But if you’re going to take that out you’re really going to be putting us at the bottom of the state.”
Fontaine lauded Gendron’s initiative, saying it’s imperative to bring all the unions to the table simultaneously in order to win across-the-board concessions.
Traditionally, contracts have been negotiated by the administration, subject to ratification by the City Council. Gendron’s team strategy would be different than the administration-driven approach, but City Solicitor Joseph Carroll said it wouldn’t be illegal.

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