In theory, it's not Suffolk taxpayers who will be stuck with a fiscal headache if the county does not realize $17 million a year in savings on employee prescriptions. Contracts signed last year with Suffolk's labor unions say that if the savings don't materialize, then employees must pay more or receive reduced benefits to make up the difference.

That annual $17 million in savings was a big point in selling the new police and other municipal contracts to legislators and the public. The path to lower costs through a switch to mostly mail-order prescriptions, however, has been elusive, and thus far it looks like savings of that magnitude have not materialized. The company that won the bid to provide the services for more than 10,000 employees fled the deal at the last minute. Express Scripts, the provider at the time, agreed to stick around for another year and administer the program, but it's unclear whether the program created any savings. Another company is slated to take over in May.

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County officials say it won't be known until an audit is done in 2015 whether those savings were achieved in 2013 and 2014. Is it that complicated? Will the unions simply roll over if the audit concludes they owe tens of millions of dollars, retroactively to 2013? That would mean reduced benefits or higher contributions to cover the bill.

The unions aren't going to impose cuts on members without a fight if this money is owed. This means lengthy arguments over who is at fault, debates over contract interpretation, and eventually, court battles. Meanwhile taxpayers are paying the bills while the generous raises in the contracts are paid out.

County Executive Steve Bellone sold this deal as a better bet for taxpayers than relying on risky contract arbitration. If real savings aren't created by this new system of providing prescriptions, it's up to Bellone to make county employees swallow some very unpleasant medicine.