The Times, Trenton

Christie-Sweeney Plan For N.J. Public Worker Health Care Unfairly Bypasses Collective Bargaining

The Times of Trenton — Tuesday, June 21, 2011

By Phyllis Salowe-Kaye
Times of Trenton guest opinion column

Gov. Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-West Deptford, have struck a deal that will eliminate New Jersey public workers' rights to bargain over health care and will impose thousands of dollars of health-care premiums on those workers. This plan fails to promote access to quality, affordable health care and would mandate rather than negotiate changes to the plan through collective bargaining. It's bad policy.

Public workers are the people who take care of our sick and our elderly, teach our children and protect them from abuse, monitor the safety of our roads and our environment, operate our public transit, serve our food and take our tolls. They are not the enemy and they do not deserve attacks against them.

In fact, this is a problem for every New Jerseyan, not only for public workers. By dictating rather than negotiating health-care benefits for the more than 800,000 people in the State Health Benefits Plan, the governor and Sen. Sweeney are setting a precedent to keep consumers out of the discussion. They are also setting a bad standard for what the state will consider affordable for New Jersey families to spend on health care.

The current Christie/Sweeney deal will require public workers and retirees to pay between 14 percent and 35 percent of their health-care premiums, which could mean an increase of $5,000 — not considering the additional unavoidable yearly rate increases. This will directly affect one in four insured people in New Jersey. It will also indirectly affect the rest of us. Just think: If Gov. Christie thinks that our public workers should be paying up to 35 percent of their premium, how much is he going to expect us to pay? Also, when our lower-income public workers are unable to afford health care coverage, they will still need health care.

The State Health Benefits Plan is a significant part of New Jersey's system of health care. Ill-conceived cuts and changes to the SHBP will have a serious negative effect on access to quality and affordable coverage for the entire state and seriously compromise the delivery of health-care services to hundreds of thousands of families. The proposal has the potential to send more people unnecessarily to emergency rooms, and will ultimately destabilize hospitals and medical delivery in the state as well as cause actual health-care costs to rise.

The proposal also fails to address rising health-care costs. Instead, it merely shifts costs from public employers to public employees, fails to base employee cost-sharing on a realistic affordability standard and, if adopted, will exacerbate the already very difficult, if not impossible, health-care landscape for thousands of New Jersey families.

The Communications Workers of America (CWA), the largest of the state employee unions, has proposed a collectively bargained health-care reform plan. Under CWA's plan, employees would pay a portion of the plan cost based upon a combination of income level, plan selection and coverage. The CWA proposal would reduce the costs to the state significantly by encouraging generic prescriptions, bulk purchasing of pharmaceuticals, wellness/preventative care, digital medical records and better management of health-care delivery, while progressively and fairly doubling employee contributions over time.

The CWA proposal is better health-care policy and it would be provided through collective bargaining, not through unilateral imposition or legislation that would make such collective bargaining illegal.

We cannot allow the governor and Senate President Sweeney to mandate affordability for us. As patients and consumers, we need to stand up against these attacks on public workers and the right to affordable health care.

Phyllis Salowe-Kaye is executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action (njcitizenaction.org).

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