Unions threaten to sue on health care

April 20, 1994|By John Rivera ,,TC | John Rivera ,,TC,Sun Staff Writer

Disgruntled county employee unions are threatening to go to court over changes in their health care benefits that the County Council adopted Monday night.

Dennis Howell, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 70, which represents the county's patrol officers, said he would be "remiss in my duties" if he didn't investigate binding arbitration or legal action to stop what he says are violations of his union's contract.

In addition, Helen Simpson, president of the union that represents clerical and technical employees, and LeRoy Wilkison, president of the firefighters union, said they are considering action to redress contract violations.

The council voted 4-3 to put into effect a health care plan County Executive Robert R. Neall has been pushing as a way to contain costs.

The plan drops the traditional Blue Cross/Blue Shield health insurance in favor of a cheaper plan that features an HMO. At the same time, employees will receive a 2 percent raise effective April 21 and a 4 percent raise beginning July 1.

But representatives of six unions said the changes violate terms already negotiated with the county.

Under Mr. Neall's plan, the county will offer an HMO that covers 100 percent of costs and a point of service plan with a pool of doctors who will act as gatekeepers for health care services. The county will pay 90 percent of those costs. A more expensive plan, offering a choice of more doctors, also is available, but at a higher cost to employees.

Employees who seek health care outside of the managed care network will pay 30 percent of their costs.

County officials said they expect to pay $1.5 million less for employee health insurance in the fiscal year that begins July 1, and will recoup $4.3 million in savings in the 1996 fiscal year and $8.4 million in savings by 1997.

"[Mr. Neall] is pleased with the outcome," said Louise Hayman, a Neall spokeswoman.

But the unions that represent the police officers and firefighters, clerical workers, sheriff's deputies and county Detention Center workers say the changes violate their contracts in three ways:

* The contract states that the county can reopen negotiations only on employees' health insurance, but not on their dental and optical coverage, which is listed in a separate provision. But the county renegotiated these as well.

* Three unions -- the secretaries and clerical workers, the sheriff's deputies and the Detention Center workers -- negotiated a 2.5 percent raise effective in October. They hold that they should get this raise in addition to the 2 percent and 4 percent offered by Mr. Neall as a condition of agreeing to these changes.

"We gave up things in the negotiations last year to get the 2 1/2 percent," said Mrs. Simpson, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2563.

* The unions have a parity clause that requires the county to grant to all unions what is negotiated by one. AFSCME Local 582, which which represents blue-collar workers, agreed to Mr. Neall's proposal in February and was granted a 2 percent raise retroactive to Jan. 1. The unions argue they should receive the same retroactive raise.

But county officials said the money for those raises was spent on the higher cost of the old health insurance program. "We have incurred additional costs because these six bargaining units did not sign onto the health care plan," Thomas Mullinex, a county budget analyst, told the council.

Either way, union officials say the 6 percent raise is no windfall for them because of increased cost they will bear with the new health plan.

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