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Henry Garrido, the executive director of District Council 37, told his 150,000 current members and 89,000 retirees in a recent letter that there is no Plan B to the Municipal Labor Committee’s demand that 260,000 municipal retirees (and their dependents) be transferred to a proposed Medicare Advantage Plus plan.
The city claims it would save $600 million in annual insurance costs, which comes to about six-tenths of 1 percent of the city’s $100+ billion budget.
Well, there ought to be a Plan B!
The City Council, which has been recruited in the effort through a proposed amendment to the municipal code, must reject the proposed change for many reasons.
There are many options to the MLC’s intransigent position. Some have already been outlined in recent letters to The Chief. They include having the city self-insure, negotiate reduced reimbursement rates to our already wealthy nonprofit hospitals, and combine many of the member unions’ welfare funds to reduce administrative costs — perhaps saving millions.
They also include addressing other options recommended months ago by an MLC committee to identify needed funds. These include among others consolidating drug purchasing and auditing insurers for claims and financial accuracy.
The fact is that the four men in the room — officers of the MLC Garrido, Gregory Floyd of Teamsters Local 237, Michael Mulgrew of the United Federation of Teachers and Mark Cannizzaro of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators — do not want to find an acceptable way out of this morass.
This is because they want to hold on to their power as municipal labor leaders and see the delivery of health care as their key asset in an environment where union membership and member expectations are shifting.
Unlike the labor leaders of my era — Jerry Wurf, Victor Gotbaum, Dave Dubinsky, Jack Sheinkman, Leon Davis, Walter and Vic Reuther, Charlie Cogan and Al Shanker of the UFT — today’s municipal labor leaders are looking behind rather than ahead of themselves. And remember, there is a complex union bureaucracy in place to process claims based on a health-care system which exploits members’ illness.
What are these other options which exist in a period where the public’s approval of unionization is growing? First, there has to be a rejection of the economic austerity which has shaped the city’s budget since the fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s. Back then, unions stepped up to the plate purchasing city bonds eschewed by Wall Street in a then-toxic bond market and saved the city from bankruptcy.
But today, the city has to identify new revenue sources, including from the billionaires purchasing Manhattan co-ops who do not live in this country and the many corporations which make their fortunes here yet pay no taxes.
The MLC has no budget expert to advise the city like Jack Bigel who played a key role in budget analysis and restructuring during the 1975 fiscal crisis. That process is ongoing but the city’s playbook appears to be the same old, same old!
Next, there are the pharmaceutical companies, some of which have already agreed to pay billions of dollars for their role in facilitating access to opioids nationwide. Their business plan calls for charging retired seniors (and others) hundreds of dollars for pills costing a few dollars to produce while they rake in billions for the salaries of their executives and their colleagues, who, incidentally, are paid handsomely.
Emblem’s CEO, Karen Ignagni, for instance made $3,095,534 in 2021. The fact is that the structure of the health-care delivery system responds to the profit motive which drives much of the economic activity in this country. Note that some DC 37 retirees’ pensions hover around $22,000 and some are as low as $10,000 annually.
For comparison’s sake, Floyd of the Teamsters, who sits on the board of EmblemHealth, which originally shared the contract for the new MA+ plan, had total annual earnings of more than $250,000, according to publicly available figures. Garrido makes more than $315,000; Mulgrew, $334,000; and Cannizzarro, nearly $290,000.
Let’s talk about the hospitals. Costs have spiraled out of control. Read your Explanation of Benefits and marvel at the rates charged for simple procedures. No wonder hospitals can buy up smaller competitors, build new palaces and celebrate their CEOs with million-dollar annual salaries.
Where do we go from here? First and foremost, recognition and inclusion of retirees in the collective bargaining process is key. There can be no acceptable resolution as long as retirees are excluded from the process of reaching one!
The New York Organization of Public Service Retirees’ suit marks a new beginning in retiree militancy. So does the decision of, allegedly, 66,000 retirees to opt out of the city’s proposed MA+ plan. Admission of that number probably obscures many thousands more.
Recognizing that current legislation and practice excludes retirees is no excuse for continuing that practice. The times demand change. Failure to do so puts any final resolution at peril. Leadership with a mission and a vision would make it happen — yesterday!
Secondly, there is a growing feeling that if the MLC leaders cannot seek a fairer, better solution, they should stand down and permit others to do so! The exclusion of women from the ranks of leaders and decision makers should be noted.
Next, the continuing racism which permeates our New York City health system must be acknowledged. Passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965 required the 20 percent co-pay as dictated by Republicans and Southern Democrats.
Health-care inadequacies are rooted in this system which recognizes the financial limitations of some members and limits access to preventive care.
There are ways to address this.
Yesterday and today, our representatives have not done their jobs! We share this blame but must be aware that the time has come to make them do their jobs or else!
The city’s imposition of a Medicare Advantage Plus system would create a two-tier health care apparatus where women, low-income people, and black and brown people will be denied the care we need.
Higher-income and higher-pensioned retirees and current employees will opt out. We cannot afford to create or sustain such an apparatus and the times will not tolerate it!
Finally, acceptance of the New York Health Act which would provide access to universal, compressive, affordable, quality health care for all New York residents is a given. Municipal unions must withdraw their resistance and share in designing creative solutions to the issues they oppose.
There is much for unions to do in our age of climate change including securing higher wages and better working conditions. New organizing leaders are to some extent overlooking offers of assistance from current union leaders as well as adapting new strategies to respond to changing times.
New York is one of the world’s premier cities. Some might even say it’s the world’s premier city. Municipal workers are among those who made it so and continue to make it so! Some may look down on us as lazy, overpaid and over-pensioned city workers.
But we see ourselves as keeping the city moving, educating its children, cleaning its streets and supporting its art and culture among other tasks — in short contributing to its vibrancy.
Not only is health care a human right. Access to quality, comprehensive, affordable health care is the issue of our time! We are an army of older residents engaged in this struggle and determined to win it — for ourselves, our children and our children’s children.
Evie Rich is a retired educator and municipal retiree; a person of color and veteran of the Civil Rights Movement; a progressive; still active in education, feminist and aging issues.
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