SHIRLEY -- Not for the first time, Selectman Robert Prescott Monday night asked his colleagues to consider changing existing town policy on paid health insurance benefits offered to elected town officials, part-time employees and on-call firefighters.
Shirley is one of 40 municipalities in the state offering paid health insurance to anyone other than full-time employees, he said, with the town covering 75 percent of plan premiums for on-call firefighters, some part-time employees and elected officials who opt in.
Given the high cost of health insurance now compared to what it used to be, he doesn't think that's good company to be in these days.
"We need to get out of this group," Prescott said. "There's a fairness issue here, in my opinion."
When the issue came up before in the context of creating town policies and procedures, the board asked Town Treasurer Kevin Johnston to look into it, as well as another insurance-related matter: The backlog of unpaid health insurance premium bills, mostly generated by former subscribers who failed to pay their 25 percent of the split.
Monday night, Johnston updated the board on his progress. All current subscribers on the list who were in arrears are now paid up, he said, but a handful of former subscribers still owe the town money. Some are making payments, while others are not, he said.
The board also discussed results of another town's survey of health insurance packages offered to selectmen in surrounding municipalities, including Groton and Harvard. None of the other towns offered paid insurance benefits to the selectmen, according to the survey, which did not address whether paid benefits were offered to officials other than selectmen, part-time employees or volunteers. The survey didn't state why it was done.
The selectmen said they'd like a more comprehensive picture and asked Administrative Assistant Kathleen Rocco to ask around.
Citing state law, Johnston said the town might not have much choice. "Chapter 32B is clear ... compensated elected officials are eligible" to receive benefits, he said.
Prescott questioned whether eligibility means the town must provide access to health insurance, without having to pay for it. "I'd like to see what the other towns do," he said, adding that the survey only showed "one piece" of the issue.
"In most towns, only elected officials such as selectmen and the assessors receive compensation," Johnston said, which puts them in the same category as full-time employees.
And once a town accepts a section of the law, such as a provision allowing health insurance coverage to be extended to on-call firefighters, it can't be rescinded, he said.
Acknowledging the town needs "to do some housekeeping in this area," Johnston suggested "more investigation" of the applicable section of the law before making changes. Chapter 32B has been in place for over a half-century, he said, dating it to about 1939. With numerous revisions over the years, it's complex, he said, noting that he and other treasurers think the law needs to be revamped.
Rocco suggested having town counsel review it.
Chairman Kendra Dumont said the selectmen should read it first and with their aim in mind, target only the sections they want the attorney to focus on rather than simply sending him the law with a general request to look it over.
The board agreed to do that, and to take the matter up again in early September, giving Johnston time to collect and compile information they'll need for the discussion.