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November 4, 2013

Municipal health care reforms draw fire

BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to change state and municipal employees’ eligibility requirements for retiree health benefits is drawing harsh criticism from those workers and some lawmakers, while reform proponents argue that the present system is unsustainable and needs to be fixed to protect local services from cuts.

Lawmakers on the Public Service Committee last week faced a hearing room packed with municipal workers, corrections officers and labor union groups opposing legislation that raises the age and years of service required for public employees to be eligible for health care coverage in retirement.

Last year, a commission studying retiree health care costs recommended the changes to address a $45 billion to $50 billion total unfunded cost of retiree health benefits at the state and local municipal levels over 30 years.

Patrick’s legislation proposes raising the number of years public employees work before they are eligible for retiree health benefits from 10 to 20 years. It would also increase the minimum eligibility age by five years for each employee group.

For most employees and elected officials, it would go to 60, 55 for specified hazardous duty employees and 50 for public safety employees.

The changes, if approved by the Legislature, would be applied to current employees, with some exemptions for those close to retirement.

The debate comes amid a renewed discussion of long-term benefit issues on Cape Ann, where a new firefighters’ contract in Gloucester has raised concerns over the sustainability of long-term pension costs.

The proposed state changes would not address pension benefits but would reform long-term health-care benefits — including those offered to elected city and town officials, such as city councilors and town selectmen. The issue of health-care benefits has been raised in the past in Rockport, especially.

Many in the crowd at Gardner Auditorium in the State House last week wore shirts and stickers with “HB 59” with a line drawn through it, signifying their opposition to the designated bill.

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