Members pack meeting on GIC benefit cuts

Nearly 400 teachers and retirees from MTA’s Metro region packed a legislative forum on Feb. 11 to express their strong opposition to the Group Insurance Commission’s recent decision to impose higher co-payments and substantial deductibles on all employees covered by the GIC.

The forum, held at the Boston Teachers Union Hall in Dorchester, was attended by a dozen legislators or their aides.

Describing the mid-year increases as an example of “bait and switch,” the participants asked the legislators present to sign a letter of support for eliminating the deductibles and to provide the GIC with enough funds so that the deductibles can be eliminated in the upcoming plan year, which begins July 1.

The day after the meeting, the GIC voted to keep in place the mid-year plan design changes. The next GIC meeting, which will be held March 3, will be to set the final rates in accordance with those plan design decisions.

MTA Vice President Paul Toner, who is a member of the GIC, voted against making the plan design changes permanent.

During the legislative forum, Brian Gearty, president of the Blue Hills Education Association (at right), described the lengthy process his local went through in deciding whether to join the GIC.

“After much work, we finally found the right balance – the premium share split that would represent the win-win solution for employees, retirees, the school committee and the nine communities we serve,” he said.

“Just five months into the insurance year, we were told that there was a problem at the GIC,” Gearty continued. “It seems that the premiums were not set at the appropriate rate. As a result, there was a projected deficit – not enough money to pay the claims. The fair solution to this problem would have been to notify employers and employees that, due to unforeseen circumstances, the premiums would have to be increased and everyone would shoulder the burden. As we all know, that’s not what happened! The whole burden was dumped onto the backs of the employees in the form of mid-year changes in co-payments and the creation of deductibles. We understand that co-payments may increase, but the deductibles must go! The imposition of the deductibles on us is nothing more than a new tax – specifically targeting us – the public employees.”

MTA Vice President Paul Toner, a labor representative on the GIC, said he was among several on the commission who opposed the increases when they were first proposed and voted against them on Feb. 12, but his position was overruled by the majority.

Toner explained that the GIC underestimated the cost of claims this year by more than $30 million. In past years, surpluses were more common than deficits, but when deficits did occur, they were generally handled by approval of a supplemental appropriation. Because of the state’s fiscal crisis this year, however, no such appropriation has been made.

The GIC’s two choices were to increase premiums, with most of that increase being paid by the employer, or to shift costs onto employees. Since the Commonwealth is the largest employer of the 330,000 GIC participants, increasing premiums would also have required a supplemental appropriation by the Legislature. The GIC therefore voted instead to shift costs onto employees and actually reduce the premiums.

At that November meeting, GIC Executive Director Dolores Mitchell described that action as “rare and regrettable.” She reportedly acknowledged, “This is a cost shift, plain and simple.” The new deductibles for all those in the GIC, regardless of the plan, are $250 per person or $750 per family per year. Co-payments were also increased.

Carole Dailey, a retired educator from Weston, said that the increases “place quite a strain” on retirees who live on a fixed income.

“These increased costs for retirees come at the exact time we are facing the highest costs of the season for hearing our homes,” she said. “We have no one to pass along the increased costs to like the GIC passed along their increased costs to us.”

In addition to opposing the increases, the MTA is supporting a bill filed by Senator Kenneth Donnelly (D-Arlington) to allow municipalities to establish Health Reimbursement Accounts, locally funded accounts from which employees with especially high out-of-pocket medical expenses can be reimbursed for a portion of their costs. Under current law, HRAs are not permissible.

Speakers at the forum said they support this legislation but that it is no substitute for adequate funding of the GIC. They noted that most municipalities are running deficits right now and would not have the funds to deposit in an HRA even if such funds were permitted.

Local associations represented at the forum were Quincy, Brookline, Randolph, Watertown, Weston, Weymouth, Blue Hills Regional Vocational Technical, Millis, Norwood and Holbrook.

When Richard Stutman, president of the BTU, learned that the hall was being used by MTA members for a legislative meeting, he immediately waived the $1,000 hall rental fee. He received a warm round of applause from the crowd for his generosity.

Event photos on our Facebook page, http://facebook.com/massteacher