The Municipal Labor Committee (MLC) has filed a lawsuit to prevent Mayor Michael Bloomberg from unilaterally issuing a request for proposals (RFP) from insurance providers that would revamp the NYC Health Benefits Plan (HBP).
“This isn’t Wisconsin,” said MLC Chair Harry Nespoli in announcing the suit. “In New York, we don’t unilaterally abolish the negotiating rights of unions.”
The Bloomberg administration has argued aggressively for making employees pay some of the cost of insurance premiums for their coverage under the City health plan, instead of the current system where the premiums are largely or totally paid by employers. That change, strongly opposed by the MLC, was implicit in the terms of the RFP.
“The City’s rush to judgment on the RFP results in two mistakes,” said the MLC’s Nespoli. “First, taking action by itself, and not including in the decision-making the views of the recipients of the service – the City’s workers.” The second error, he said, was “making a $7 billion spending decision” for services that would not begin until six months after the mayor’s last day in office.”
Municipal union leaders say they are not against modernization of the employee health care plan. “We support the City’s efforts to reduce health care costs, but there is a right and wrong way to go about it,” Nespoli said. “As recently as 2009, the MLC came forward and helped the City realize $400 million in health care savings. Now, instead of sitting down and listening to us in good faith, the City is going it alone and pretending we are standing in the way.”
For CUNY employees who are covered by the NYC Health Benefits Plan, the terms of the coverage are collectively bargained for between the City and the Municipal Labor Committee. (At present, only full-time faculty and staff are covered by the HBP; eligible adjuncts continue to receive health coverage through the PSC-CUNY Welfare Fund. See Clarion, June 2013.
The MLC is a coalition of about 100 unions, and the City employees’ health plan covers about one million people in all. PSC President Barbara Bowen is a member of the MLC’s Steering Committee. In that role, she has worked to protect the plan’s benefits against concessions – for example, in pressing to maintain full coverage for psychotropic medication.
“The fact that we bargain over health care together with other unions gives us all more power,” Bowen told Clarion. “Altogether, there are a million covered lives in the City health plan – and the power in those numbers is a big reason that we’ve been able to keep affordable health care coverage, with good options, and the employer covering the cost of most subscribers’ premiums.
In an August 6 speech, Mayor Bloomberg insisted that if the City remained responsible for full payment of health insurance premiums, it would help put NYC on a “road to ruin” that could leave NYC in the same economic condition as Detroit. James Parrott, chief economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute, called this “a naked scare tactic” that was not based on the facts of New York’s fiscal situation, according to the civil service weekly The Chief.
City unions say they are not against putting the contracts for coverage out for bid, and the two sides had been in discussion over what should be the terms of an RFP. But the MLC says it was blindsided by the administration’s unilateral action. “The truth is that for months the City and outside consultants secretly crafted an RFP without our knowledge,” said MLC Chair Nespoli, who also heads the sanitation workers’ union. “Then in June, with little warning, they dropped a 1,000-page highly technical RFP on us and demanded we sign off without giving us sufficient time to review.”
The MLC asserts that issuing an RFP without negotiating its terms first is “in direct violation” of agreements on municipal health care benefits that date back decades – particularly one from 1992, which states that the City and the MLC “shall jointly continue to participate in all aspects of the procurement process by which the choice of vendors of collectively- bargained health benefits shall be made.” Jointly designed RFPs have been issued four times since 1992, most recently in 2003.
On August 20, a state judge granted the MLC’s request for a temporary restraining order, barring the City from proceeding with the RFP until at least September 16, when the court will hear arguments from both sides.
In the current mayoral election, Republican nominee Joe Lhota has said that health care costs for City employees must be increased by making them pay part of the insurance premium. Democratic contestant Bill de Blasio, has not endorsed Bloomberg’s demand, saying he will not negotiate in the newspapers.