North Shore mayors say they like what they've heard so far from Statehouse leaders pledging to address skyrocketing municipal health insurance costs in the new legislative session.
"It is the No. 1 issue for us in all the cities across the state," said Beverly Mayor Bill Scanlon, who is also president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
Both Gov. Deval Patrick and House Speaker Robert DeLeo singled out health care reform as a top priority in the new session.
"To get different results, we need to start trying different things," Patrick said. "And we need to start now."
Of course, exactly which plan Beacon Hill lawmakers will embrace remains unclear.
In a speech shortly after his re-election as speaker, DeLeo called for a strategy that would require cities and towns to join a state-run pool — the Group Insurance Commission — which administers health benefits for state employees and retirees.
"The reality is that municipal employee health insurance is a budget-buster, which puts untenable strain on municipal services," DeLeo said. "Unless cities and towns can find health insurance at the same or lower cost than the GIC, we should force them to join — bringing them under the more efficient and cost-effective state system."
But Senate Majority Leader Fred Berry was critical of that plan.
"Putting them all in the GIC doesn't work," Berry said. "I don't think it's practical, but I'm in total agreement we have to allow cities and towns to do their own planning."
Berry prefers a concept that Mayors Kim Driscoll of Salem and Tom Menino of Boston have tried to advance that would create local insurance commissions to administer health benefits in cities and towns. Unions would have a seat at the table, but would essentially lose the power to single-handedly block changes. Right now, provisions like copays are agreed to in direct negotiations between communities and unions, which means unions have to sign off on any increases.
"I think the common view is that everybody is looking at tools that will save towns and cities money on health insurance," Driscoll said. "Hopefully in the next few weeks, there will be some consensus between the Legislature and public officials on how to do that. But the bottom line is we need relief, and hearing them recognize that is a really big first step."
Optimism is a common theme at the start of legislative sessions, but in July lawmakers adjourned for the year without making much progress on municipal health insurance. That lack of relief from Beacon Hill has been a source of frustration for some North Shore leaders.
"It's the same litany of things we've been talking about for the last several years," Peabody Mayor Michael Bonfanti said. "It would be very helpful if our legislators — because there is a partnership with them and the governor's office — listened to what he we had to say. It'd really be beneficial."
Even though state officials seemed to make the issue a priority in their speeches, legislators also have a full plate in front of them, including reforms to both the embattled Probation Department and Parole Board.
While those issues may take front and center, Scanlon was hopeful the Legislature would get to health insurance before mayors and town managers have to finalize their annual budgets in the spring.
"I'm truly optimistic we're going to make some progress," Scanlon said. "Sometimes it takes awhile, and we've worked on the health care subject for several years now. I think there's new determination."
Staff writer Chris Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ChrisCassidy_SN.