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Mahoning Co. seeks equitable system



Published: Sun, September 4, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Commissioners consider a standard health insurance contribution paramount.

By ROGER G. SMITH

VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County officials want to bring all their workers under uniform health insurance plans and contributions.

The aim is to bring all county workers this fall under the same coverage and contributions toward insurance premiums, said Human Resources Director James F. Petraglia. The county wants to negotiate the package and insert the new deal into current contracts or apply the deal to pacts under negotiation.

The idea, however, is unrealistic and misguided, says a veteran union official who represents some county workers.

Petraglia has approached union leaders from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Communications Workers of America; Teamsters; Sanitary Department and Fraternal Order of Police. All said they would at least listen to the idea, he said.

Monthly costs for county workers run $1,100 to $1,200, he said.

Commissioners want all workers paying 10 percent, without any cap, toward the premium the county pays for health insurance, Petraglia said.

Uniform approach

Judges have indicated they would apply such a deal to their nonunion employees if the county persuades all union workers to do the same, he said.

Some court workers now are paying 10 percent toward their insurance, but the percentage is based on premium costs from past years, not today's cost, Petraglia said. Likewise, county workers today pay various amounts toward their health care -- some none at all -- depending upon the department in which they work.

A standard insurance package would be more equitable, he said. Each worker would pay the same amount for the same coverage.

Petraglia acknowledges the issue is contentious.

Commissioners, however, consider a standard contribution for all employees to be a paramount issue, he said. Commissioners are sensitive to public criticisms that government workers aren't bearing the same costs as many private-sector workers, he added.

A uniform approach also would make negotiations easier for the county and unions, Petraglia said. Unions usually seek whatever deal was agreed to in the most recent contract settlement, he said. Applying the same deal to all workers would bypass that chase, he said.

"It would make their life and my life much easier," Petraglia said.

'A wrong move'

Bob Bernat, business agent and treasurer for Teamsters Local 377, however, said such an approach only will increase costs for the county, which is self-insured.

The veteran negotiator said studies show people paying toward their health care feel compelled to get their money's worth. They go to the doctor and have procedures done they wouldn't otherwise consider if they weren't investing in the insurance. The mind-set is that "I'm putting money into it, so I'm going to use it," he said.

Bernat understands the political motive behind the county's move. He doesn't see, however, how the county will save money if workers increase their use of health care.

"They're driving the cost of health care up," he said. "I think it's a wrong move."

Bernat represents about 90 workers in the engineer's office negotiating a new contract after the old pact expired.

Regardless of what the county negotiates, Bernat doesn't see Petraglia reaching his goal of inserting a blanket health care plan into all new and current contracts at once. Unions aren't going to reopen hard-won current pacts for a new health-care arrangement, especially when it likely will cost them money, he said.

"Absolutely not. There's no way he's going to achieve it," Bernat said.

rgsmith@vindy.com




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