SHIRLEY -- The draft of a new employee health benefit management policy that treasurer Kevin Johnston gave the selectmen to review June 3 was nothing new in terms of content, he said, since it basically consists of recommended guidelines they've been using since 2009, "with several revisions."

Once approved, however, the document becomes official and that will be a first, Chairman David Swain said.

"This seems to work," Johnston said of the current set-up. "If you adopt this process as policy, those responsible for management will be held accountable," he said.

And it covers every category except collections.

But Swain said collecting unpaid balances from those who owe them is a key component.

Johnston agreed to work on it. "I recommend that you adopt this (document) now," he said, contingent on a later update with the collection process spelled out.

Noting there's no problem with active employees covered under the town's health plan, since their portion of the plan premium is deducted from their pay checks, Swain asked how dependent coverage for retirees is handled.

"The subscriber is responsible" for the cost, Johnston replied. "If one of the spouses is a retiree, we ask that the retired individual make the town whole," he said. Otherwise, the subscriber pays the difference. But if a bill isn't paid for a couple of months, the subscriber is dropped from the plan.

Swain said that in that case, there should be an added administration fee to re-subscribe. If payment becomes an on-again, off-again arrangement, there's time consuming paperwork involved, he said.

"We're not talking about employees," Prescott stressed, reiterating Swain's earlier point.

But the option to enroll in a town insurance plan is also open to elected officials and on-call firefighters, and those who sign up are billed for it. "These are very generous benefits," Prescott said, the implication being that the bills should be paid on time, and if not, the town must follow up with a collection process.

"We have a collection agency," Johnston said, but going that route "hasn't been very effective." The Mass. Department of Revenue recommends garnishing wages to collect overdue amounts, he continued, but in his view, another option would work even better. "If we could pass along unpaid bill information to the Registry of Motor Vehicles..." as the collector can do with unpaid excise tax bills, he ventured. But his office isn't authorized to do that.

Prescott called for an assessment of the situation. Not individual names, but an overview of "what's in arrears and for how long" and which overdue amounts are 'collectible via outreach and payment plans.

Johnston said he could provide such a list, as long as it doesn't violate HIPPA regulations. "I can assure you that we reach out to anyone who owes the town money," he said.

Again, he recommended that the selectmen approve the policy draft, if they liked it, and amend it later, with a late fee to cover added administrative costs to collect overdue bills.

The three-member board voted unanimously to do so.

According to the Massachusetts Inter-municipal Insurance Association, a nonprofit organization that works as a buyer's consortium for member communities, Shirley offers a "rich" employee benefit package compared to others in the state, but not the richest.

Specifically, the town offers comprehensive health plans with low deductibles and little or no co-payments for most medical services and pays 75 percent of the premiums, splitting the cost with subscribers; that is, eligible full-time employees, retirees, on-call firefighters and elected town officials who choose to participate.

Teachers, however, are no longer part of the program and are now covered by the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District.

Dating to a period before insurance rates skyrocketed and benefits were commonly substituted for other compensation to control costs and attract talent, Shirley's health insurance design plan - which also includes no-cost preventative services required by law and perks such as health club membership discounts and mental health counseling - has not changed in recent years, although the option to do so is now open to all cities and towns in the Commonwealth and changes may be initiated without collective bargaining with local unions. 

Treasurer Kevin Johnston, reporting to the selectmen recently on the outcome of Insurance Advisory Committee meetings, said the group's recommendation was to maintain the status quo, for now.