Massachusetts House vote on municipal health care provisions panned and praised by advocates
By Patrick Donges
Pittsfield, MA – The state House of Representatives voted 113 to 42 Tuesday night in favor of the budget amendment proposed by Rep. Brian Dempsey of Haverhill that would allow municipalities to set co-payments, deductibles and other health plan design features for public employees outside of the collective bargaining process.
Russ Davis, Executive Director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, called the amendment an attack on the rights of municipal employees.
"I think it's not about trying to deal with the fact that there's a health care crisis. It's about taking away the rights of working people."
Davis identified what he said are problems with the national health insurance industry as a whole that should be addressed before taking aim at the negotiation rights of unions.
"We're not addressing the issue of why it costs so much to provide health care, that's the real issue here. If health care costs keep going up and up, you can't expect employees to keep paying more and more and that's the solution. The question is, where's all that money going? There (are) still a lot of people profiting off of health care in the United States and that's where the real costs are."
"Most other industrialized countries provide perfectly adequate health care at half the price in some cases, but significantly less than in the United States. The system is broken."
Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, agrees that the country's health care system needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way, but unlike Davis, he believes the House measure is a step towards that level of reform.
"That is a huge undertaking. This step alone will save enormous dollars for citizens, for taxpayers, and clearly will be addressing health care costs. And I think the reality as well is that everybody will benefit, not only the towns, but the employees and the retirees."
Widmer said the House measure is a far cry from efforts being made in other states to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights, calling it a narrow exception to those rights.
"It's nothing like Wisconsin at all. It's a common sense change, but obviously strongly opposed by the unions, though in fact the result of it will be to preserve union jobs."
The House is expected to wrap up their budget negotiations at the end of this week. Widmer said he hopes a similar measure is proposed and passed by the Senate in their 2012 budget.
"I hope the Senate will follow the House's lead. If they don't I hope they at least will preserve the essence of what the house has done."
Of the four state Representatives representing Berkshire County, only one, Rep. Paul Mark of the second Berkshire district, voted against the amendment.
Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli represents the fourth Berkshire district and voted for the measure.
"I don't think it's as bad as some people are making it out to be. When you look at the details, it's not bad at all."
Pignatelli said the measure is not mandated by the state, but is instead a local option that can be initiated by municipal governments, adding that the measure gives retirees a seat at the negotiating table for the first time.
"I think it was a fair amendment. It doesn't remove collective bargaining; it forces it to happen a little quicker that maybe they would like. But everybody will have a seat at the table."
Brian Morrison is president of the Central Berkshire Labor Council, which represents members of 26 unions living and working in Berkshire County.
"We told them what we thought would be an appropriate vote. We're disappointed in the vote of the three legislators; Cariddi, Speranzo and Pignatelli and we're very proud of Paul Mark."
Morrison said that Tuesday's vote would likely affect the candidates council members choose to endorse during the next election cycle.
"I think it would be safe to say that we're going to look long and hard about who we're going to support."