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Huntington, Workers Clash on Insurance

Times Staff Writer

Huntington Beach employees want city officials to reject a looming hike in the amount they’re being asked to pay next year toward health insurance.

For those choosing their own physician, the employee’s share for family coverage will increase to $352 a month for a plan that now costs $63 a month.

Less flexible coverage will jump to $221 a month from $38 a month.

The increases represent the rising cost of health insurance, which officials say the city can’t afford to absorb. Employees say they can’t either.

“I will be forced to seek a second job,” a tearful Freddy Horning, an accounting technician, told the City Council at a recent meeting. “I don’t want to leave the city, but realities are we have to survive.”

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The same lament has reverberated across Southern California this summer, as spiraling health-care bills prompted employers to rethink coverage and worker contributions. Health-care disputes triggered strikes by public transit mechanics in Los Angeles and grocery workers in five counties. Los Angeles wants its employees to reopen contract negotiations next year on their health-care contributions.

Huntington Beach and its eight employee unions, which represent about 1,100 workers, began meeting this summer to negotiate contracts to replace those that expire Dec. 31.

On the table was the city’s wish to end its self-funded health-insurance program, which needed cash infusions of about $1 million for each of the last two years to pay claims.

The city wanted to explore other programs and cost-cutting measures to reduce the monthly insurance payments it makes on behalf of its employees. Those costs range from $236 to $814 per employee, depending on the amount of coverage and the number of family members in the plan.

Members of the city’s unions balked at being asked to shoulder more of the cost. Until last year, workers had paid nothing for health insurance.

When employees were asked to pick plans during open enrollment last month, the Huntington Beach Municipal Employees Assn., which represents about half of the city’s employees, fired off letters to City Hall complaining that the prospect of choosing among spiraling price hikes wasn’t much of an option.

“This is the most draconian proposal we’ve seen from a city,” said Ray Whitmer, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 911, which represents the municipal association. “It’s not hard to understand why employees are up in arms.”

Last month, the union launched a war of words before the City Council. Distressed employees commandeered the microphone for nearly three hours during the public-comment portion of the meeting, pleading for the city to assume some of the cost hikes. About 200 union members were on hand.

Even more members were expected to crowd Monday night’s council meeting, hoping council members would respond to an undisclosed union health-care proposal.

City officials say the health insurance hike is necessitated by staggering cost increases that the city can’t afford. Huntington Beach, like other cities, is dependent on the state budget and had to trim $11.5 million from its budget this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. The city also must refund up to $27 million in property taxes that were improperly collected for years, based on a state appellate judge’s ruling this year.

If the city cannot reach an agreement with the unions by the end of the month, the cost increases to the employees will take effect. About two-thirds of employees are enrolled in the more expensive city-administered plan, with the rest in a Health Net HMO.

“The costs of taking care of people is just becoming more and more expensive,” Assistant City Administrator Bill Workman said.


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