Detroit, public safety unions talking health care

George Hunter
The Detroit News

In what some say is a first in city-employee relations, Detroit officials are working with the city’s four public safety unions to hammer out a new health care plan for police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

In the past, the city dictated which health care options were available to first responders, but Mayor Mike Duggan agreed to let the four union heads have input as the city decides which plan to adopt. The parties have been meeting every two weeks since January to come up with a plan that will cover members in 2018.

“For the first time in the history of unions and the city, we’re working together on one side of the table to put a plan together that best serves our public safety employees,” Detroit Firefighters Association President Mike Nevin said. “That’s huge. When all sides come together as adults, instead of insulting each other, a lot can get accomplished.”

Representatives from the city’s four public safety unions — which also include the Detroit Police Officers Association, Lieutenants and Sergeants Association, and Command Officers Association — spoke with the mayor in January about crafting a new health care plan.

“Duggan could have told us to pound sand, and there isn’t anything we could have done about it,” Nevin said. “But he agreed to open it up and look at it, to see if we can’t figure out a better deal. I give the man credit; he’s willing to work with us.”

Denise Starr, the city’s director of human resources, said: “It’s always healthy to have the input of the unions and employees, and for us to be open about what we can and cannot do.”

The city sent out surveys earlier this month to the 6,500 city employees covered under the city’s health insurance plans, Starr said. There are about 9,000 city employees, but some don’t have health care because they’re part time or are covered under a spouse’s plan, she said.

“The survey is to see what the employees want,” Starr said. “And since we were going to survey police and fire employees anyway, we decided to survey the entire city.”

Starr said about 1,000 employees have already responded to the survey, and she expects to have all the forms completed within three weeks.

Currently, city employees may choose between Blue Cross and Health Alliance Plan. Until last year, public safety employees also could choose the Coalition of Public Safety Employees health plan, which had been available to Detroit first responders since 1999.

But in November, COPS Trust, which charged no premiums, decided to stop offering coverage.

“The people at COPS Trust saw an increase in costs, and decided there was a solvency issue,” said police Cmdr. Aric Tosqui, president of the Command Officers Association. “A large percentage of union members were forced off COPS Trust and onto Blue Cross.

“The four unions came back with a plan for the city to look at, to offer health care through Blue Cross that had a similar high deductible/no premium plan COPS Trust offered,” Tosqui said. “The city put it out for bid, and came back and told us they couldn’t do it because it was not cost neutral. The city doesn’t want this to cost them more money.”

Starr said there’s a chance whatever new plan is adopted also will offer a choice for no premium. “There are several options, and we’ll look at them to see which one works best.”

The plan adopted for public safety employees could eventually cover all city employees, Starr said.

Starr added whatever plan is chosen must be approved by the Financial Review Commission, the state-appointed board put in place to monitor Detroit’s budget three years after the city declared bankruptcy in 2013.

There are health care issues that are particularly concerning to public safety workers, Lieutenants and Sergeants Association President Mark Young said.

“There’s a lot of stress on first responders, and all the health issues that come with that,” Young said. “My officers work crazy shifts, and so their sleeping and eating patterns are off. That has health consequences as well. And then there are the nagging injuries you get on the job. It all adds up.”

Part of coming up with a plan will be trying to address the various union heads’ concerns.

“I’ve been pushing for a health care savings account,” Tosqui said. “To me, that’s important, because the probability is that retiree health care will probably not return. A health savings account allows people to put money aside for later, although it has a high deductible on the front end.”

Young said he didn’t want that kind of plan. “I’m concerned about members having high co-pays and deductibles, because we don’t make that much money now as it is,” he said. “If you don’t make any money today, how are you going to put money up for tomorrow?”

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