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State health insurance policy saves Saugus $1M

SAUGUS – When Saugus joined the growing number of Massachusetts communities in the state’s health insurance pool in 2008, the result was more than $1 million in premium savings the first year.According to Town Manager Andrew Bisignani, had the town not become part of that health insurance system, it would be in dire financial straits.But the agreement bringing Saugus into the fold of the Group Insurance Commission (GIC) expires in June 2014 and leaves towns and cities without control of their individual health care plan designs.”We certainly don’t know what the terrain will look like in 2014, but towns and cities should have more control over plan design, which is something we didn’t have when we negotiated with the GIC,” Bisignani said. “I think cities and towns should have more authority because their unions, if they agree, are going to want something in return.”Seventy percent of the collective bargaining groups in Saugus agreed to join the GIC. “The savings in that first year were in excess of $1 million and allowed us to remain solvent,” the town manager said this week, noting employees and retirees and their families ? about 500 people ? are covered by the plan.Not everyone has been pleased with the GIC, mostly because the plan can generate higher co-payments for health care services.Bisignani is quick to cite Saugus pays 90 percent of the health care costs and the employees 10 percent. “It’s still a burden to the town. The co-pay might go up in some cases, but the cost to the town for a family plan is in excess of $16,000 annually. That’s the amount paid by the town. The employee pays 10 percent, or $1,600. That is a great deal for the employee,” he said.Although emergency room visits are among the co-pays to feel a stiff increase, Bisignani asked rhetorically, “How often do you go to the ER? I would think very few times, so you pay a little more to allow the system to remain solvent.”At many hospitals, emergency rooms are flooded with patients who have no insurance coverage and use the facility as they would a primary care physician’s office. The practice tends to drive up health care costs.In Saugus, agreements were struck with the six municipal unions ? police superior officers, police patrolmen, firefighters, AFSCME, public safety dispatchers and library employees. The other unions in the plan were grouped under the School Department.”I think the GIC is better for the cities and towns, but we should have control over the plan design,” Bisignani said. “As it stands, we had to give the schoolteachers a raise to get them to agree.”House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who sponsored the legislation, said the GIC is under attack by labor groups and unions in support of an amendment by Rep. Martin Walsh.Under DeLeo’s version, cities and towns would be able to change the co-pays and deductibles up to the same level that state employees have in the most subscribed plan offered by the GIC.”DeLeo is saying if you are going to negotiate a health care plan, it has to be at least as good as the one offered by the GIC,” Bisignani said.According to Cindy McGrath, GIC communications director, Saugus entered the plan through special legislation because it was off cycle. “There are two cost items you have to look at when you talk about cost sharing ? co-pays and deductibles. Secondly, you have to look at the full cost of the premium,” she said.McGrath noted Saugus effectively became a member of the plan on Jan. 1, 2008. The plan currently has 180,000 subscribers and covers the lives of 380,000, she said.”Each municipality that joins decides their own split,” she said, referring to the ratio of employer to employee cost.

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