Schools to retain CareFirst benefits

Board approves contract with health provider after employees protest change

Anne Arundel

September 16, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Responding to employee concerns, the Anne Arundel County school board voted last night to pursue a one-year contract with CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield and reject all other bids for one of its health-care plans.

"All of us realize this is a very important issue to employees," said board member Tricia Johnson. "We have been researching, thinking, whatever you want to call it to get it right."

More than 300 employees of the school system rallied outside school system headquarters in Annapolis before the meeting, wearing blue clothing and holding signs that read: "Honor the Contract" and "Keep Your Promise."

"I don't want my health care touched, that's the one valuable benefit we get," said Sue Errichiello, principal of Georgetown East Elementary School.

In July, Superintendent Eric J. Smith recommended that the board approve a five-year, $15 million contract with Minnesota-based United Healthcare as the administrator of its preferred provider health-care plans. School system staff said the contract with United, which would replace an expiring contract with CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, would have saved the system $13.5 million.

But representatives from four unions that bargain for school system employees say changes would have to be negotiated, because CareFirst is named as a health-care provider in the employees' contracts.

On Monday, Smith changed his recommendation, suggesting instead that the school system continue to use CareFirst until an arbitrator can resolve a grievance filed by the teachers' union.

Sheila Finlayson, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, said she was pleased.

"That will give the board time to negotiate any changes, and we'll be able to look at what any change will mean and whether we can accept it or not," she said.

Board member Eugene Peterson said the health-care issue had been "twisted" by the union to leverage negotiations on "agency fees" - a percentage of dues that would be paid by nonmembers to the union for its services. The teacher's union wants the fees, but its primary concern is the health-care contract.

"It's way past time to drop the incendiary charges and countercharges and do the right thing - put a workable plan for health-care cost containment in place," Peterson said.

But Thomas P. Barbera, president of United Healthcare of the Mid-Atlantic, defended the company's right to be awarded the contract. He said the bidding process was as important a part of democracy as public participation in local government decisions.

"It is a fact that we made the best bid and we should get this contract," he said.

In other business, the board approved a $3.5 million supplemental budget appropriation to be forwarded to the County Council.

County Executive Janet S. Owens had vetoed an earlier bill at the request of council members, who were concerned about raises given to top administrators within the $665.4 million operating budget they approved in the spring.

Council Chairman C. Edward Middlebrooks said he expects that council members will support the new bill.

"Salaries are in line now with what we asked, so I think we'll honor our commitment and fund those programs accordingly," he said.

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