Akron, unions to talk about potential changes to health benefits

By Stephanie Warsmith
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Akron is expecting to spend more than $30 million on city employee health care this year and is projecting an increase of as much as 9 percent in medical costs next year.

To try to find ways to save on this major expense, the city could be looking to its four unions for help.

Akron will present ideas for potential savings later this month to a joint Health Care Committee created last year during joint negotiations with the unions. The offer will be an all-or-nothing deal, meaning all four city unions would have to accept it.

“Our goal is to figure out how to keep our employees healthy and save taxpayers money,” Finance Director Diane Miller-Dawson said.

The Health Care Committee was created last fall as part of a historic pact Mayor Don Plusquellic and the union presidents agreed to accept. That agreement, which helped avoid long and costly negotiations, gave raises over the next three years while leaving other contract language alone.

The committee has been meeting regularly since the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Civil Service Personnel Association (CSPA) and the police and fire unions approved the agreement. The discussion so far has been mostly educational, informing union leaders about such topics as the federal health-care law and how it will affect Akron and other local governments.

That will change at the next meeting, July 17, when the city will provide union leaders with its proposal. City officials weren’t willing to discuss particulars this week but would say the proposal could involve a wellness program, different plans for people who are single or who have children, and adjustments in out-of-pocket expenses, co-payments and prescription costs.

“We are hopeful we can work collectively to come to a solution that meets all of our goals,” Miller-Dawson said.

George Johnson, president of the Akron AFSCME chapter, said the committee will listen and decide if what is being suggested seems reasonable.

“We won’t know until we see what they propose,” he said.

The committee will report back to the city at a July 26 committee meeting. If the committee is amenable to the city’s proposal, each union’s executive committee and members then would need to approve it.

Johnson expects the city’s proposal to include some type of wellness program that rewards employees for taking steps to become healthier, like quitting smoking, working out and getting regular physicals. Employees who take these steps could be required to pay less in health-care premiums.

Akron employees — union and nonunion — recently began shouldering premiums for the first time. Single employees spend $20 a month for coverage; employees with families pay $40 monthly.

A consultant the city hired told the Health Care Committee that 80 percent of employees generally are accepting of a wellness program. The others are opposed.

“If that’s the 20 percent that has the majority of the vote, it ain’t going to fly,” Johnson said. “It depends on who shows up on a consistent basis.”

Union leaders think the health-care talks are being prompted by the federal health-care law and the changes it will bring, which many are struggling to fully grasp. Akron on Monday began limiting the hours of part-time, temporary and seasonal employees to fewer than 30 a week to avoid paying them health benefits. Another provision of the federal law would require a standard health-care package by 2018, meaning that Akron, for example, couldn’t offer better coverage than Summit County.

“How that’s going to impact city employees, I don’t know,” Johnson said. “We may see premiums go up.”

Patty Ambrose Rubright, Akron’s interim personnel director, put it this way: “We’re going to be forced to abandon Cadillac plans by federal law.”

Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or swarsmith@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Beacon Journal’s political blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/ohio-politics.

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