MTA President Paul Toner on Governor's Health Insurance, Education Funding Proposals

Governor Deval Patrick announced a plan January 21 to set new limits on the health insurance benefits received by teachers, education support professionals and municipal employees. The proposal would require all cities and towns to either join the state Group Insurance Commission or institute a program of equivalent value and cost by July 1.

“We are extremely concerned about a proposal that the governor’s office says will cost teachers and municipal employees anywhere from $90 million to $105 million a year,” said MTA President Paul Toner. “Municipalities, their employees and the residents of Massachusetts all need relief from the relentless increases in the cost of medical care, and simply shifting costs to public employees does not solve that problem. We need to be discussing methods to reduce overall health care costs here in Massachusetts for everyone.”

Toner said he is encouraged that the administration says the governor’s plan will “ensure labor a meaningful seat at the negotiating table.”

"Public employee unions have been negotiating significant cost savings at the table for years, and that is where solutions to this problem will be found,” he added.

The governor’s plan will go to the Legislature, which can pass it, amend it or reject it. The date it would take effect is the start of fiscal 2012.

Toner criticized Secretary of Administration and Finance Jay Gonzalez’s description of public employee health benefits as “overly generous” in the governor’s press release on the plan.

“That comment is neither true nor helpful,” said Toner. “Employees pay a significant share of the cost of insurance. In some communities they are already paying 50 percent of their health care premiums, and more and more of our members are paying higher and higher co-payments and deductibles. Our goal should be to make sure everyone in the public and private sectors has access to high-quality and affordable health care.”

The MTA does support a key part of the governor’s proposal: a provision to require cities and towns to move eligible municipal retirees into the federally funded Medicare program. Many municipalities have not enrolled their eligible retirees in Medicare, even though both the municipalities and retirees have contributed to the Medicare system. By moving all eligible retirees to Medicare, cities and towns will save an estimated $15 million to $30 million annually, according to the Patrick administration.

Employees who have paid into the Medicare system and are eligible to receive that benefit should be enrolled,” Toner said. “Clearly, there needs to be a commitment to involving retirees in making decisions about how this change is made. With that commitment, municipalities can save a lot of money from this change while ensuring health care benefits for retirees.”

Regarding the governor’s budget proposals for education and local aid, Toner said that preliminary information that Chapter 70 school aid and state funds for special education will rise is “good news.”

We will need a lot more details to make more definitive comments about these sections of Governor Patrick’s budget,” Toner said. “We know these are challenging fiscal times, but they are also challenging times for public education. As a society, we can’t lose sight of the long-term benefits of maintaining an excellent education system, in good times and bad. We must recession-proof our students. They only have one shot at a great education.”