Arundel schools to retain CareFirst health care benefits

Board approves contract after employees protest

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 grievances 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.

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.

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