By Gregory B. Hladky
Hartford Courant - May 22, 2015
HARTFORD — Legislation that would let cities and towns enroll their employees in the state's health insurance plan won Senate approval Thursday evening over the objections of Republican lawmakers worried about higher state expenses and new difficulties for municipalities.
The Senate's Democratic majority rejected multiple GOP amendments over the course of more than three hours of debate. The bill passed on a 21-14 party-line vote and now goes to the House for action.
Democrats argued that giving municipalities the chance to take part in the state health insurance pool would save local taxpayers the higher costs of paying for individual city or town health plans and provide many municipal workers better health coverage than they now have.
The proposal also has the backing of major public employee unions, including the Connecticut Education Association and Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. One unusual provision in the bill would require that the state employees collective bargaining coalition, representing all state unions, agree to any participation of a municipality's employees.
Republican lawmakers, who have opposed similar bills for years, questioned whether the proposed legislation might raise costs for an already financially troubled state government and make it difficult for cities and towns to leave the state health insurance plan if they wanted to in the future.
Previous versions of the legislation would have mandated local participation in the state health care pool. Democrats said their new bill would make participation voluntary on the part of cities and towns.
But Senate Republican Leader Leonard Fasano of North Haven said mayors and municipal leaders in his district "indicated to me that this bill is not good for them." Fasano warned that, once a city or town decides to take part in the state employee health insurance plan, municipal officials would see "a tremendous amount of restrictions on a town's ability to negotiate" with public worker unions.
Sen. Catherine Osten, D-Sprague, said the legislation would "save [cities and towns] money and provide them with good health care for their employees … and give some relief to the people we care about the most, the taxpayers."
Osten said participation in a similar but more limited state health insurance program called the Health Care Partnership "has proven to decrease the cost of insurance" for municipalities that took part. She said her own town's school board saved $150,000 a year in health insurance costs by enrolling its employees in the partnership program.
But one of the bill's primary critics, Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, pointed out that fewer than 20 of Connecticut's 169 cities and towns have elected to take part in that partial state health insurance program. He said a major concern of local officials is that "once you're in [the state health care insurance plan], it's difficult to get out."
Democrats rejected Republican proposals to make it easier for municipalities to get out of the state's plan if they find they aren't saving as much money as expected, or to delay action on the proposal until a new study had been completed.