Judge delays health plan notification until grievances' resolution

May 13, 1994|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff Writer

An Anne Arundel Circuit Court judge yesterday ordered county officials to hold off notifying government employees about their new health care plan, a ruling that threatens efforts to implement the plan by July 1.

County officials had planned to begin sending the notices to 4,100 employees next week. But Judge Warren B. Duckett Jr. granted an injunction in response to a suit by the county firefighters union seeking to delay the notification until two health care-related grievances filed by county workers are resolved.

County attorneys said yesterday that resolving the grievances could take several weeks.

Walter Chitwood, the county's chief administrative officer, said last night that he would have to discuss the matter with County Executive Robert R. Neall before deciding on a course of action.

Mr. Neall has been pushing the plan, which drops the traditional Blue Cross/Blue Shield and replaces it with a managed care system that relies on an HMO -- a pool of doctors providing health services -- as a way to contain costs. Representatives of the firefighters and five other unions have claimed that the changes violate terms already negotiated in their contracts with the county.

Andrew H. Kahn, a lawyer for the Professional Firefighters Association, Local 1563, argued that Judge Duckett's order was needed because the outcome of the grievances could affect health care costs for all employees and workers were being forced to decide on a health plan based on questionable cost figures.

"Don't ask these people to make an important change in their lives when they don't know the costs involved," Mr. Kahn said.

But county lawyers argued that the health care costs and the grievances are separate issues, and that the outcomes of those cases easily could be factored into any health plans.

"Even if they were to win at arbitration, an arbitrator could easily -- factor in those costs," said Peter S. Saucier, a lawyer hired by the county for labor issues.

In order to implement the plan by the beginning of the fiscal year, July 1, the county must begin sending out forms by May 15 notifying workers of the changes, county lawyers said.

"Registering 4,000 employees for those kinds of benefits is not something you can do in 10 days or so," Mr. Saucier said.

Yesterday, Deputy County Attorney David Plymyer took the unexpected step of calling Deborah Hansen, one of four plaintiffs, to testify in hopes of demonstrating how little she and others knew about the plans.

Mrs. Hansen, a Glen Burnie nurse who is the wife of a fire lieutenant, admitted that she didn't know how much the county's health care plan cost her now, nor did she know how much the new plan would cost her.

Mr. Plymyer argued that Mrs. Hansen's lack of knowledge about the impact of the new plan demonstrated the union's general failure to show how the new plan would irreparably harm its members, a standard for granting such court orders.

The suit was designed to demonstrate the union's muscle to county management, he said.

"She doesn't know what the costs are now. She doesn't know what the would be under the new plan. Where's the required irreparable harm, your Honor?" Mr. Plymyer asked. "All of this is just another labor ploy."

When the hearing was over, Mrs. Hansen burst into tears.

Under the Neall plan, the county will pay 90 percent of the costs of the HMO. A more expensive plan, offering employees a greater choice of doctors, also is available, but at a higher cost.

Employees who seek health care outside the HMO will pay 30 percent of the costs.

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