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A benefit preserved in new Suffolk County health care pact

Though all active employees will share in the cost of medical coverage going forward, premium-free coverage will be preserved for many long-term workers once they leave the county.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.

 Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Suffolk’s new tentative health insurance agreement will preserve the existing premium-free coverage for long-term workers hired before 2013 once they leave the county, even though all active employees will share in the cost of medical coverage going forward.

The benefit, long in county labor contracts, will affect about 77 percent of the 11,000-member county work force, but will have to be renegotiated again when the health agreement expires in 2025.   

Union officials say maintaining the premium-free health coverage was a major worry for many longtime county workers, who feared the cost-sharing of premiums would also apply to them in retirement. To be eligible for the premium-free coverage, most long-term employees need to have 10 years of county service to become vested; police, probation and district attorney investigators need five years. 

“I would say workers were very concerned they might be adversely affected in retirement and felt they might be rushed out the door if we did not get this agreement to read the way it does,” said Dan Levler, president of the 6,000-member Association of Municipal Employees, the largest of the county unions.

The health insurance agreement was approved Thursday by leaders of the 10 county bargaining units. County Executive Steve Bellone has sent emergency resolutions that would allow a ratification vote of the health insurance deal, along with new PBA and AME contracts, at Tuesday’s county legislature meeting. However, a speedy vote, without review by legislative committees, will require a two-thirds majority, or 12 votes, for passage.

AME officials say information will be sent out to members next week so they can participate in online voting for ratification, in which votes can be cast  until May 31, or perhaps later if union officials believe members need more time. The PBA expects to conduct a vote shortly after county ratification, but  has not announced a date.

Levler, who had a dozen meetings with union members Thursday, said, “Early reaction was based on releases from the county executive’s perspective. It was very different once they heard details of the deal. They were very happy.”  

Suffolk PBA president Noel DiGerolamo said, “Once we were able to review the agreement in its totality, we will not have an issue passing ratification.”

Under the tentative health agreement, which Bellone aides say will save $40 million a year, all employees will have to pay 2 percent of their salary for health coverage, a contribution that will increase by  0.1 percent each year until it reaches 2.5 percent. However, the minimum annual contribution will be $1,500 and the maximum will be $3,750, increasing to $4,000 by the end of the contract.

Until now, only newly hired employees paid a 15 percent share of health benefits based on the Kaiser Family Foundation rate, which has risen 7 percent to 12 percent a year. For family coverage the share was about $3,600. For those hired on Jan. 1, 2013, or later, their share of health care contribution will be locked in at the same rate as the year they retire from the county. 

Levler said his union also negotiated a separate health care trust, to which the county will contribute $3 million a year until the fund reaches $15 million, and use the interest to help offset members’ medical costs.

Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) said he has asked legislative budget analysts to come up with a review of the agreement by Tuesday’s meeting.

Legis. Tom Cilmi, GOP caucus leader, said, “There’s a lot to digest, but we are going to do our best to unpack it all prior to Tuesday’s meeting.”

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