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Health insurance deadline looms

Date: 11/25/2008

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

CHICOPEE The question facing Mayor Michael Bissonnette and the unions representing city employees is whether or not joining the state's Group Insurance Commission (GIC) will save the city money and meet the needs of the insured.

The city has until Dec. 1 to make a decision to join the state program. If not, it would finalize a health insurance plan on its own as it has previously done.

The state's program is the largest employer-purchased insurance plan in New England.

At a press conference conducted Nov. 18, Bissonnette said he had signed the authorization to begin bargaining with the union. State Rep. Joseph Wagner, who has long advocated that the city look into the coverage offered by GIC, joined the mayor at the press conference.

Bissonnette said city officials have been "crunching the numbers" on policy costs offered by Health New England and Blue Cross Blue Shield. He described the rates that have been offered to the city by the two insurers as "very reasonable."

He noted one of the challenges in making a decision is while the city has the costs from the private insurers now, the GIC rates will not be announced until April. Part of the problem is that GIC operates on a different fiscal year than the private companies. Bissonnette said the city is looking to match the GIC schedule.

There are 2,500 employees and retirees who receive their health care benefits from the city, he said. The coverage and costs offered by GIC need to be similar to their current policies. One-sixth of the city's budget goes to pay for health insurance, he said.

Although Bissonnette said the estimated impact from switching to GIC runs the gamut from losing money to saving money, he said the best-case scenario would see the city save $400,000.

"It may mean keeping six to seven cops on the street," he said of the savings.

Once the city joins GIC it has a three-year commitment, he added.

Bissonnette said the unions have rejected going into GIC twice before. One issue that concerns the mayor is the lack of any local control over the benefits and their costs.

Springfield has switched its health plan to GIC and has saved $7 million, Bissonnette noted. Pittsfield appears ready to go into the state plan and expects savings of $5 million, he said.

Wagner said that GIC "in terms of holding down [health insurance] costs has been more successful" than cities have been.

Wagner said that as a state employee he has been in the GIC plan for 17 years and has never heard complaints about co-pays and other costs.