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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

NYC workers may face pressure to kick in for health costs

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks to the media after he delivered remarks at Heavenly Visions Church in the Bronx on March 9, 2014. Credit: Charles Eckert

Most New York City municipal employees pay no share of their health insurance premiums. But how long this once-common and now-envied deal may last depends on negotiations underway between union leaders and the de Blasio administration.

Dean Fuleihan, the city budget director, has previewed the tricky contract talks ahead. To fund raises, he told the City Council, "there have to be offsetting savings." And Fuleihan said de Blasio "specifically mentioned and has repeatedly mentioned health savings."

The city's Independent Budget Office projects health care and related benefit costs will reach $6.4 billion by 2017, up $1.5 billion from this year, rising an annual average of 6.9 percent.

So the pressure builds for officials to make city workers kick in beyond existing copays for doctor visits and prescriptions. Recent labor deals for other public employees in the region may add to that pressure.

In January, Metropolitan Transportation Authority police agreed on a new contract with an immediate 7.5 percent wage hike and later increases -- partly in exchange for new recruits kicking in 2 percent of their base pay toward health care premiums.

Consider, too, the Long Island Rail Road contract faceoff. Even a set of recommendations from a federal panel that the railroad's parent MTA rejected as too costly called for employees to start paying 2.25 percent of their 40-hour weekly pay by June 2015.

State employees already pay percentages for health premiums, and so would new Nassau County employees under an agreement still awaiting crucial approvals. Suffolk made similar deals with unions in 2012.

The business-funded Citizens Budget Commission has been pushing for the city to join the trend. Noting in a report last year that 90 percent of municipal employees don't pay any percentage of premiums, CBC declared: "Reducing the taxpayer burden for premiums will not reduce the city's attractiveness as an employer and is essential to balance the budget . . ."

But with the talks still in early stages, it is unclear if bargainers could find and agree on alternatives. One controversy late in the Bloomberg years involved the city's effort to rebid contracts with health insurance companies. Could cost cuts be wrung instead from the way those contracts are structured, if the unions, represented by the Municipal Labor Committee, collaborate? Some on the union side also tout a pact between real estate owners and the union SEIU 32BJ as cutting costs without introducing employee contributions.

One piece of an agreement, of course, depends on the others.

Given years of no bargaining, the framework for the city's current meetings with the labor committee, headed by United Sanitationmen's Association President Harry Nespoli, starts out quite vague. Fuleihan told the council this month, "We're going to treat the workforce with the respect that they have not been treated with, but at the same time protect the taxpayers and do something that's affordable."

Meanwhile, said the CBC in its report last year titled "Everybody's Doing It," "The cost of health insurance for New York City public employees and retirees has more than doubled in the last 10 years, and its continued growth will be a major driver of projected budget gaps."

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