New Jersey’s labor unions were undeterred by rain clouds over Trenton Tuesday as hundreds of government workers descended on the Statehouse in labor’s latest push to fend off massive rate hikes on health insurance premiums.
A coalition of at least 14 unions organized the rally after Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration signaled it would move forward with a vote Wednesday on proposed rate increases of more than 20% for state health plans.
A throng of union members filled the outside corridor of the Statehouse annex and spilled into West State Street, where crowds of off-duty police officers and firefighters gathered, listening to the handful of speakers lined up for the event.
“Governor Murphy, hear our call,” the crowd shouted, as chants echoed off the annex walls.
New Jersey state troopers blocked off a section of the roadway between Calhoun and Barrack streets, where a line of buses sat empty after transporting workers from across the Garden State.
Many workers carried signs that said increasing health care premiums “won’t make New Jersey stronger or fairer,” a phrase repeated often by Murphy, who now finds himself at odds with a bloc of more than 800,000 public workers who have been among his strongest backers.
“I see CWA’s in the house,” Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora said as he stepped to the microphone.
“Now that I’m in management I can really appreciate how workers are the backbone of, not just the city, but the entire state,” he said, before pointing the finger at health care executives who have “done pretty well for themselves.”
Vanessa Jackson and David Tucker listened from a stoop across from the Statehouse, both in matching green shirts representing their union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
“It affects our paychecks,” Jackson said. “They give you a pay raise, and then they take it away by raising health care premiums.”
She and Tucker, both employees at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, said they expect to lose about $75 to $150 each paycheck if the rate hikes are approved. Tucker said it’s forcing some to consider other health insurance options or even a second job.
“Is it really worth working for the state anymore?” Jackson asked. “We’re fighting for our kids and grandkids who might have these jobs in the future.”
Employees would see their premiums jump by about $1,500 to $1,800 on a typical family plan, amounting to a pay cut of roughly 0.5% to 1.5%, according to estimates from union leaders.
New Jersey taxpayers could also be affected. Local governments can pay as much 70% of the total premium of their employees, and property taxes are the only source of revenue to fill the hole.
Sheri Humphrey, a member of CWA Local 1080 in Elizabeth, watched and listened from her chair on State St., flanked by other union members and government workers.
“I came out here to support my fellow brothers and sisters,” said Humphrey, who works for the board of social services in Union County.
As a county worker, Humphrey said she isn’t getting hit with the massive premium hikes yet, but she’s worried this will spill over into other areas and might be a sign of more financial pain to come.
“There’s a domino effect,” Humphrey said. “I’m concerned that it will trickle down.”
The State Health Benefits Commission, chaired by New Jersey Treasurer Elizabeth Muoio, is scheduled to meet Wednesday for a vote on the proposed rate increases. If approved, it would lift premiums on state health plans by 21%, and local governments would see a bump of about 24%.
Union leaders have asked the Murphy administration to delay the vote and continue negotiations that are still in early stages. Labor representatives on the health commission submitted several resolutions on Monday aimed at cutting costs, and committees will meet Wednesday morning to consider other cost-saving measures.
In response to a question from a reporter on Monday, Murphy said his administration was “working doggedly, including yours truly” over the weekend and yesterday to find common ground.
During his Ask the Governor show Tuesday, Murphy acknowledged that a 24% increase “seems too high. No question about.” And he reiterated his commitment to find a better solution.
“We haven’t given up on trying to find common ground,” he said.
But the administration appears to be moving ahead with a vote, and Muoio said the new rates must be approved Wednesday to prepare for the start of open enrollment in October.
But labor organizers say open enrollment and the start of a new plan year can both be pushed back, something that’s been done before. There is no legitimate reason to rush the process, they argue.
A copy of the proposed rate increases was leaked in July, surprising workers and management in local government. Both are now at the vanguard in a battle over rising heath care costs in America that is drawing allies from outside the public sector.
Power to the Patients, a national organization advocating for price transparency in health care, flew banners over the rally Tuesday in support of workers’ efforts. Planes pulling the signs were designed by Shepard Fairy, the artist best known for his work on the Obama “HOPE” Portrait and his famous Obey the Giant creation.
“With hospital rates driving healthcare costs and insurance companies pocketing taxpayer dollars in New Jersey,” Power to the Patients wanted to show support and “reinforce patients’ right to low-cost healthcare,” a company spokesperson said in an email to NJ Advance Media.
The organization parked mobile billboards along W. State Street that aired a public service announcement from Bronx-born rapper Fat Joe, who used to live in Tenafly.
“Right now millions of people are getting robbed, and not by the guys you might think. But by hospital and insurance company executives,” Fat Joe said at the beginning of his PSA.
“To all you politicians letting them crush us, you’re breaking my heart,” he said. “Because you broke your promise to the very people you swore to protect.”
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