Hundreds of public employees rallied at the statehouse Tuesday against a proposed increase to their health insurance plans that could raise their costs as much as 20% but which some say could also trickle down to taxpayers statewide.
The State Health Benefits Commission, the panel responsible for setting insurance premiums, is set to vote on that increase Wednesday.
The rally, coordinated by the Communications Workers of America labor union, featured a large turnout of members from several other labor groups, including police and municipal workers. Speakers urged members to call the Treasury Department and governor’s office to urge them to vote down the historic increase.
“Call today and then call again tomorrow when they make the wrong decision,” said Jim McAsey, mobilization coordinator for CWA New Jersey. “Or call tomorrow and thank them for making the right one.”
The Record Guild, made up of editorial staff of the USA TODAY Network New Jersey, belongs to the NewsGuild of New York, which is a chapter of the CWA. The potential health care increase does not affect Guild members.
There are about 816,000 public employees covered by the State Health Benefit Plan and the State Education Health Benefit Plan, according to the Treasury Department. This includes all manner of employees, from firefighters to teachers to local and state workers.
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The proposal could impact all state employees as well as 763 county and municipal agencies employing a wide variety of workers from every county, according to information provided by the New Jersey Association of Counties.
In addition to driving up the cost of healthcare for these workers, labor officials warn that the trickle-down effect of the exponential increase could impact local property taxes because municipalities and counties would be on the hook to cover a portion of the increased rate.
The Senate Majority Leader, Teresa Ruiz, also warned in a statement on Wednesday that “New Jersey’s increase, absent any solution, could ultimately lead to higher property taxes.”
“We should all be concerned because there are consequences for employees, state and local government, schools and the taxpayers,” said Ruiz, who also called for the commission to delay this week’s vote.
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Labor leaders had also called for the vote to be postponed so that Horizon, the benefits provider, could be further questioned on cost projections. But Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio, who is designated as the chairperson of the State Health Benefits Commission, said the vote can’t be delayed because the open enrollment for members starts Oct. 1.
‘It’s time for the state to step up for the workers’
Union members at the rally highlighted the specific impact the increase would have on each of their industries.
“With the rate increases, it will make it more difficult for health care workers to receive good health care,” said Banita Herndon, a registered nurse at University Hospital in Newark. “Imagine that, and we’re working in the trenches.”
Katwana Noble of the Department Children and Families said that she agrees with Gov. Phil Murphy when he calls for a stronger and fairer New Jersey, a phrase he’s used regularly for years. But, she said, “Raising healthcare costs will not make New Jersey stronger or fairer.”
“The state of New Jersey called upon public service workers to step up during the pandemic and we did,” Noble said. “Now it’s time for the state to step up for the workers.”
Christine O’Connell, president of the Union of Rutgers Administrators-American Federation of Unions, said the health care increase will effectively translate to a pay cut, “so if they want to charge more, they need to pay us more.”
The Coalition of Unions are Rutgers includes more than 11,000 members and has been negotiating a contract with the university. O’Connell noted that the school gets “tons of state and federal money.”
“They just want to pass on costs to the workers that make the university work, from the dining services and student counselors to residence life,” O’Connell said.
Then, referring to a recent NorthJersey.com investigation into lavish spending on food delivery by Rutgers football, she added: “We don’t have access to free DoorDash or any of those perks.”
The State Health Benefits Commission is under statute charged with setting the premiums for the plans within the program each year. Other than a few housekeeping changes, the plans have stayed the same for the last few years, said Michael Zanyor of the State Troopers Superior Officers Association serves as that Plan Design Committee Co-Chair for the members of the State Health Benefits Program.
The proposed increase is based on the recommendation of an actuarial consultant. The Treasury Department’s Division of Pensions and Benefits uses Aon, a health care consulting firm, to analyze previous coverage levels, trends in service usage and inflation to make recommendations to the State Health Benefits Plan Commission regarding premium rates.