Why We Need to Explore the Health Care Consortium

by Kenny Tompkins

Imagine if you had a terrible disease and the doctor provided a treatment that would help alleviate some symptoms? Wouldn’t you explore it? Or would you let that option sit for two years because you worried that you might have to give up something, all the while letting your symptoms get worse? Would you assume it wouldn’t work without asking questions?

This is what has happened in Niagara Falls. For two years, we’ve had an opportunity to explore participation in a health care consortium with other municipalities in Niagara County. During those two years, our city’s health care committee, comprised of administration and union representation, has refused to explore the options available to treat the growing health care costs. These are costs that are contributing significantly to the city’s $7 million structural deficit and the absorption of most of the casino funds into our annual budget. They refused to even investigate if this “treatment” for our fiscal illness would be more “helpful” or “hurtful.”

Right now, joining this consortium could lower our city’s health care costs by 13%. THIRTEEN PERCENT. Health care premiums are one of the city’s largest single expenses at $17 million a year. This covers not only city employees and their families (including police and fire), but also retirees.

This cost will inevitably continue to rise over the coming years.

Can we really afford to ignore the possibility of saving $2 million a year?

Until May 2, the city council had not heard from Town of Somerset Supervisor Dan Engert, who has been coordinating this effort across Niagara County since 2014.  When I invited Mr. Engert to deliver a presentation to the council on the Niagara County Health Care Consortium at the May 2 meeting, I intended for us to objectively explore the immense savings potential our neighbors in Niagara County have been surveying for two years now.

Let me be clear: I am not discounting the concerns of the health care committee nor the unions. I understand there are concerns and questions that need to be addressed. We need all stakeholders to feel confident that this decision is something that is in their best interests. But how can we learn the answers if no one wants to even listen to the opportunity? Why has the health care committee has steadfastly refused to even explore the option? This never been explained to council or the public. Why hasn’t the administration studied this issue until now?

My understanding is the consortium members, which by law includes labor representation, are the deciding body regarding benefits. The plans are designed to provide the same level of benefits that were negotiated as part of collective bargaining agreements. In other words, current plan participants won’t see the differences. The city’s budget, however, will see the difference as will the tax payer.

As lawmakers, we have a sworn duty to protect the interests of all parties in the city—both employees and residents. Tax payers who can barely afford their own insurance premiums are frustrated at the rising costs.

We can no longer afford to stall this process.

We need to act now.

We have until May 31 to join the consortium. I am urging my fellow council members to vote in favor of a resolution that allows us to participate as of the next meeting. I welcome input for union members and others who have a vested interest in what this plan offers. I want the best for our city’s hard working employees. I also believe we have a fiscal responsibility to our tax payers to at minimum be included in this group.

We cannot lose by exploring this. In fact, we could gain $2,000,000. The only losing answer is to continue to do nothing.

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