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Bellone, unions negotiating employee health insurance contributions

Suffolk County PBA President Noel Digerolamo outside of

Suffolk County PBA President Noel Digerolamo outside of police headquarters in Yaphank, NY on Jan 17, 2014. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

All Suffolk County workers may have to contribute to health insurance costs for the first time, saving the county about $30 million a year, officials said Wednesday.

Word of negotiations between County Executive Steve Bellone and public employee unions came as the legislature’s Government Operations Committee delayed a controversial bill that would require all nonunion employees to pay 15 percent of their health care costs in 2018.

Deputy County Executive Jon Kaiman told legislators that requiring nonunion employees to contribute was intended to “send a message” in a county facing steep budget deficits.

“People are losing faith in government because they don’t think we’re paying our way,” Kaiman said.

The room was packed with opponents: dozens of prosecutors and members of the Suffolk County Association of Municipal Employees.

Suffolk faces a $160 million budget deficit between ongoing revenue and expenses, and a public backlash on fee hikes.

PBA President Noel DiGerolamo told lawmakers a broader agreement with unions could be ready for review “in coming weeks” and said it was “premature” to move forward with the change for nonunion employees.

He would not disclose what the unions were asking for in return for the county savings.

DiGerolamo, who also serves as co-chair of the Suffolk County Employee Medical Health Plan, which covers 21,000 current and former employees, questioned whether the county could legally impose the health coverage changes outside of an agreement with unions.

The bill currently being proposed would cost 323 nonunion workers — including county prosecutors and political appointees — $1,500 a year for an individual plan or $3,154 for a family plan. It would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2018 and save the county $850,000 a year.

If union employees contributed 15 percent, it could save upward of $30 million a year, according to Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague).

Under contracts negotiated since 2012, all employees hired since Jan. 1, 2013 pay 15 percent of health care costs, while more veteran workers and retirees pay nothing. Nonunion employees hired after 2012 also pay 15 percent.

Kaiman said while people may have taken the job with the understanding that health insurance was free, “circumstances changed.”

County Association of Municipal Employees President Daniel Levler said he’s opposed to any contribution based on the percentage of health costs, which would hurt lower paid workers the most. But he said there are “active negotiations” on health care costs.

“We’re working for a fair and equitable solution,” he said.

Michele Pitman, a Suffolk assistant district attorney, said it wasn’t fair to target nonunion workers while it’s unclear what will happen with union workers’ health care. “You’re targeting the voiceless, nonunion members,” she told lawmakers. The savings, she added, would be a “drop in the bucket.”

Legis. William J. Lindsey III (D-Bohemia) said the legislature would have to make tough choices. “There’s not a $100 million solution out there. We need lots of drops in the bucket,” he said.

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