Health compromise becomes law

Union leaders, municipal officials, and key legislators attend signing

What started as an all-out battle over municipal health care reform ended today in a show of kumbaya at the State House as the proposed reforms became law.

Gov. Deval Patrick signed municipal health care reform legislation surrounded by municipal representatives, labor leaders, and key legislators. The ceremony presented visually the story of cooperation that Patrick has tried to weave around the at-times contentious negotiations, which resulted in a law that is expected to shift a total of $100 million in municipal health care costs from towns to workers.

Patrick, Senate President Therese Murray, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino talked with pride about the practice of policy-making through compromise rather than contest.

“I want to thank all those who have shown the political courage to come to the table – and stay at the table – to move this bill forward,” Patrick said. “What we have shown here in the Commonwealth time and time again is that we can make change – meaningful, lasting, far-reaching change – with all of the interests at the table.”

Speaker DeLeo put it more bluntly: “If you told me I’d be speaking here, in July, with the MMA and union leaders together I’d have said you were out of your mind. But what a great day,” he said after a laugh from the audience. “What a great sign it is that we’re all able to come together to make this happen.”

The resolved faces of labor leaders to the governor’s right lacked the enthusiasm of the smiling mayors and municipal representatives on his left.

 “The final bill is probably the best result labor and the public sector people could get,” said Ralph White, president of the Retired State, County, and Municipal Employees Association of Massachusetts after the signing.

White said that legislative leaders “had to do something to satisfy the public, and at the same time maintain the image of being a labor supporter.” The deal is “not necessarily what we wanted, but enough of a compromise so that both sides could claim victory.”

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The final legislation gives municipalities two new options for reducing health care costs. Communities may enroll their employees in the state Group Insurance Commission as long as the shift results in savings of at least 5 percent compared to the municipality’s existing health plan.

Communities could also participate in an accelerated collective bargaining process over changes to the existing municipal health plan as long as the cost of the changes would not exceed those of the most popular plan offered by the Group Insurance Commission. If no agreement is reached in 30 days, the proposed changes would be submitted to a review panel for resolution. The panel, made up of one labor appointee, one municipality choice, and a final member chosen by the governor’s Secretary of Administration and Finance, would have 10 days to decide the dispute. Under the new law, up to 25 percent of any cost savings realized by the community would go back to employees to defray the impact of the higher costs.