Suffolk legislators should set example, kick in for health coverage

The Suffolk County Legislature hears a report on The Suffolk County Legislature hears a report on the county's deficit in a meeting at at the William H. Rogers Building in Hauppauge. (March 6, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/Karen Wiles Stabile

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Last week was not the first time the Suffolk County Legislature had a chance, but failed, to take a key symbolic step on the way to getting all county employees to contribute toward their health care. But it has to be the last failure. Next opportunity: next week.

Health care contributions from county employees are a long-held Suffolk goal. Nassau already requires about 300 nonunion employees hired over the past decade to kick in. Former County Executive Steve Levy wanted to start with contributions from new and rehired nonunion workers, but that bill died an unceremonious death in committee in 2009.

County Executive Steve Bellone also tried to set an example, announcing in his State of the County speech that he and his top aides would begin contributing up to 25 percent of the county's health costs for them. But last Tuesday, the legislature narrowly failed to take a further step: creating a sliding scale of contributions for about 500 managers and elected officials -- including the 18 legislators.

That bill, sponsored by Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) and Deputy Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon), came up short. It needed 12 votes, two more than the usual 10, because Bellone wanted it voted quickly without normal committee proceedings, at the same meeting as lawmakers approved his revised layoff list. Lindsay, fighting cancer, was absent; Legis. Ricardo Montano (D-Brentwood) joined the six Republicans in voting no.

That's not the way to send a message to the public employee unions that they need to make this concession. With a deficit of $530 million or more through 2103, the county has only so many ways to save serious money. One was the layoffs. Another is health care contributions. It costs the county $7,736 for single coverage, $16,500 for a family. Workers pay zilch. Countywide contributions could save $25 million or more a year.

So it's imperative that the legislature take this step at its meeting next Tuesday. This time, the bill will have gone through the normal process. So it will only need 10 votes, not 12. But it would be better if all 18 voted yea, showing a united front and enabling Bellone to make a stronger case to Suffolk's unions that it's time for them to pony up too.

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