AYER -- Dozens of town employees piled into the selectmen's meeting room last Thursday night to discuss whether the town should accept the Municipal Health Insurance Reform Act, which took effect earlier this year.

The law provides towns with a method to change health-insurance policies outside the collective bargaining process. Selectmen would forward one proposal for consideration to a locally convened Public Employees Committee consisting of union representatives and a municipal retiree. The PEC may suggest an alternative plan if agreement isn't reached with the town within 30 days.

Ayer has six municipal unions, but the town's health insurance also serves nonunion employees, their dependents and municipal retirees. The group is now covered under health-care plans provided through the Minuteman Nashoba Health Group, which consists of 17 member towns and school districts.

Following an hour of sometimes testy deliberations, the selectmen voted to delay the adoption of the new law until at least Feb. 1. Selectmen Chairman Gary Luca alone wished to forge ahead to immediately adopt the law's framework.

The law arose in response to a swarm of municipal home-rule petitions from communities struggling with double-digit annual health-insurance premium increases. In October 2010, Ayer Town Meeting likewise approved a home rule petition seeking local "design" powers outside of collective bargaining.

Under the law, a town may adopt "plan design" changes or opt to place its employees into the state's Group Insurance Commission pool. In either case, the town must realize minimum "benchmark" savings besting the GIC's most-subscribed health-insurance offering -- the Tufts "Navigator" Plan. If opting in on GIC membership, a community must demonstrate at least 5 percent savings over any other plan it could assemble.

A municipality has 30 days to negotiate with the PEC. If agreement is reached, a 60-day notice period launches. Without agreement, a three-member Municipal Health Insurance Review Panel convenes.

The law also requires a "mitigation" cap per individual or family to buffer out-of-pocket expenses to employees. The statute would require towns to funnel at least 25 percent of its first-year savings back to the employees.

No group hug

Ayer's representative to the Minuteman Nashoba Health Group is Assistant Town Treasurer Melisa Doig. At the group's Dec. 5 meeting, all 17 entities voted "yes" to accept the group's proposed plan changes despite the fact that the Ayer selectmen had not met to direct Doig's vote.

"From our reports, there are savings," said Luca. Luca said the unions would help craft a recommendation to the selectmen via their membership on the town's Insurance Advisory Committee.

But Selectman Pauline Conley pressed for data before the selectmen vote to enact the law's provisions.

"When will we have the spreadsheet and prices and comparisons as a board so that we can decide what we send to the IAC? We've been hearing about this for three months -- maybe longer," said Conley. "This board charged the town administrator in March 2011 with getting this information. Here it is, Dec. 15, and I can't get it."

Doig said quotes from other health insurers like MIAA and Eastern Benefit were due at the end of the following week, along with information she solicited form Tufts, Fallon and Harvard Pilgrim. Doig said literature and rates provided to her at the Dec. 5 Minuteman Nashoba Health Group meeting were only part of the puzzle.

"We need the details of the plans as a board to move forward," said Conley.

Luca said, "If we pass this tonight, it doesn't put us on the fast track" with the review process. "April 1 is open season. That's when it starts. You'll have the information way ahead of time."

Gabree said the IAC met on Nov. 7 and that "all union leaders were given that packet. They should have distributed that to their members." Gabree agreed, however, that those draft packets didn't include critical rate information.

"Now, as an employee, I ask -- are we able to get all of the information?" she asked. 

"I'd never not share," said Conley. "Even if I was not supposed to."

Firefighter's union President Jeremy Januskiewicz said the draft data wasn't final information to share with his membership. "I'm not about to make 15 copies and hand them out only to have them be picked up in two weeks."

Conversely, Patrolmen's union President Kellie Barhight said the Dec. 5 data "was final and nobody got copies."

Luca asserted that the selectmen hasn't met since the Dec. 5 Minuteman Nashoba meeting. But the crowd murmured that the selectmen had in fact met the very next day -- Dec. 6 -- and could have ensured the information was disseminated.

Pontbriand said the selectmen were copied on the packets.

"What about the employees?" asked Conley.

"The people who actually pay for it," added Detective Andrew Kularski, vice president of the Patrolmen's union.

Luca asked if the unions wanted the data now or in "bits and pieces."

Conley noted that all changes also affect nonunion employees and department heads. "Everybody else, raise your hand," said Conley. Hands shot up. "I'd like to see everybody get a copy of this tomorrow."

"Stuffed down

our throats"

Kularski said the sole ground for contract reopeners is for health-insurance changes. That happened in 2006 when the town successfully urged employees to pay 25 percent, instead of the prior 10 percent, of the cost of health insurance.

"You're the first to say the unions are tough and won't negotiate on health but we all took a hit that we'll never regain," said Kularski. "We devalued our contracts and now you come back four years later and basically say we're going to give you a whack again just because you can. You put something in front of us and we negotiate for 30 days. But if you have a five percent savings, it gets stuffed down our throats."

The crowd applauded. "That's the essence of it... That's why everyone's here," said Kularski. "This affects every employee. It's not about unions."

For example, instead of a plan that's bad for employees and yields 9 percent overall savings, Kularski suggested a middle ground could be a plan that yields a respectable 6 to 7 percent savings but provides "decent" coverage.

"That's working together. I'm prepared to pay more money to protect my family," said Kularski. "I care about this town as does everybody in this town who works for a lower rate."

Luca, a multi-year U.S. Postal Service employee, said, "I have pretty much the same thing that Minuteman Nashoba is offering... Where can we get a plan like what you have?"

Kularski admitted, "They don't exist anymore but there's got to be something that's better."

"This is pretty good," asserted Luca.

"It's not," answered Kularski. He charged the selectmen "sat on" the health- insurance decision too long.

Gabree said the town faces an April 1 deadline to withdraw from Minuteman Nashoba Health Group. Negotiations with the town's municipal unions begin in February or March. A new plan needs to be in place, effective June 1.

Conley suggested putting off any health-design vote until Feb. 1 to allow information to flow to everyone.

Kularski unleashed on Luca. "You shake your head and roll your eyes like it's a big joke."

"I resent that you'd say that," said Luca. "I don't want to put the screws to anybody. This is what came out of Minuteman Nashoba. There's no going back to the plan we had."

Selectman Maxant sided with the employees on at least the process. "This gives us the opportunity to ignore them. They don't trust us ... If I was sitting in their shoes I'd feel the same way."

Ayer Town Counsel David Jenkins advised that towns that want to adopt the law should move by year's end. "The natural response of the unions is 'what's in it for us?" Jenkins said it's "possible but not probable" there could be an agreement with the employees by April 1.

"We know the plan we had is gone," said Kularski. He urged collaboration "and not have this big elephant sitting in the corner and saying..." Kularski finished his sentiment by pounding his fist into his hand.

Januskiewicz left the door open. "If you can prove to me there's giant savings, then maybe it would be a little easier to swallow down the road if that's the only option out there."

The IAC will convene at 9 a.m. on Dec. 27 to contrast and compare the different health-plan opportunities. Gabree's early estimation was $275,000 in savings under the Minuteman Nashoba Health Group's approved changes.