Health Care Law Raises Pressure on Public Unions

The so-called Cadillac tax was inserted into the Act at the advice of economists who argued that expensive health insurance with the employee bearing little cost made people insensitive to the cost of care. In , though, where benefits are arrived at through bargaining with powerful unions, switching to cheaper plans will not be easy.

Cities including New York and Boston, and school districts from Westchester County, N.Y., to Orange County, Calif., are warning unions that if they cannot figure out how to rein in care costs now, the price when the tax goes into effect will be steep, threatening raises and even jobs.

“Every municipality with a generous health care plan is doing the math on this,” said J. D. Piro, a health care lawyer at a human resources consultancy, Aon Hewitt.

But some prominent liberals express frustration at seeing the tax used against unions in negotiations.

“I think it was misguided all along,” Robert B. Reich, the former labor secretary, said in an e-mail. When the law was being written, he said, he worried that the tax was “a that could too easily become a bargaining chit for cutting back benefits of workers.”

“Apparently, that’s what it’s become,” Mr. Reich, who is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, said.

Under the tax, plans that cost above a certain threshold in 2018 — $10,200 annually for individual plans and $27,500 for family plans, with slightly higher for retirees and those in high-risk professions like law enforcement — will be taxed at 40 percent of their costs in excess of the limit. (The thresholds will rise with inflation after 2018.)

across the country tend to offer more expensive health plans than do, and workers often accept smaller to retain their benefits. Because of this, employees are expected to be disproportionately represented among those whose plans will be subject to the tax.

New York City expects its two most popular employee health plans to reach taxable Cadillac levels by 2018 or shortly after. This year, the city projects that it will pay a total of $7,128 for individuals and $18,249 for families in its most popular plan, including the costs the city pays into union welfare funds to cover prescription drug benefits. That is above the national average for employer-sponsored health care coverage, which last year was $5,615 for single coverage and $15,745 for family coverage, according to a 2012 Kaiser Family Foundation survey.

The total health care cost for the city’s nearly 300,000 municipal employees, pre-Medicare-age retirees and their dependents is expected to approach $8 billion by 2018.

In a letter in April to the head of a labor coalition, Caswell F. Holloway IV, deputy mayor for operations, said the Cadillac tax would cost New York City $22 million in 2018, increasing to $549 million in 2022. (This year, the total city budget, excluding federal and state aid, is just over $50 billion.)

“We know that, on the current trajectory, we’re going to be hit with that tax and it would increase very steeply,” Mr. Holloway said.

So the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, in its final months in office, is asking municipal unions to agree to seek new bids for the city’s health insurance business, hoping to lower premiums. It has already achieved one small victory, getting the city’s current primary insurer to freeze premiums for one year if it keeps the city’s business, the mayor said on Friday.

But lower-cost plans are likely to involve greater out-of-pocket costs and more limited networks of doctors, and so far, the response from labor has been cool.

Ninety-five percent of city employees and 93 percent of retirees are in the two largest plans, which require employees to pay nothing toward their premiums. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation survey, the average contribution by public employees throughout the country is 12 percent for individual plans and 23 percent for family plans.

Harry Nespoli, the chairman of the Municipal Labor Committee, the labor coalition that negotiates with the city on health care, said that he was concerned about the tax, but also that the burden of any cuts would fall largely on workers at the bottom of the pay scale.

Mr. Nespoli said his staff was looking over the request for proposals that the city had written, but he said he was skeptical that the process of seeking new health insurance could be completed before the next administration.

“We’re not going to turn around and do a $7 billion contract that affects our members for the next 10 years out without looking at it very carefully,” he said.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/05/nyregion/health-care-law-raises-pressure-on-public-employees-unions.html?pagewanted=all

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