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Insurance benefits target of audit by Comptroller: County Executive responds

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Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw is studying ways to eliminate a costly and, in his mind, unnecessary benefit for county workers. Over the past four years, county taxpayers have paid $1.4 million to cover massages and acupuncture treatments for county employees. The treatments are part of the county's medical benefit package and are covered by the county health insurance plan. Those covered are entitled to 12 massages and 6 acupuncture sessions per year. Mychajliw views these as a luxury and not a necessary benefit. "My elderly parents live down the street from me in Kaisertown. They are on a fixed income and struggle to pay their bills. Their limited income should not pay for workers to receive massages and acupuncture," says Mychajliw.

Mychajliw is reviewing these benefits in an audit of the county insurance plan.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz issued a written statement Sunday in response, noting the contract was "inherited from prior administrations."

Poloncarz's statement is as follows:

"The new Erie County Comptroller issued a two page “memorandum” today announcing the costs of acupuncture and massage services provided to Erie County employees between 2009 and 2012. Having not been provided a copy of the memorandum, I cannot attest to the accuracy of the Comptroller’s findings. However, I am pleased that the Comptroller agrees with the Legislature and I and has joined us in expressing concern over the growing cost of health care for Erie County government.  I have been diligently working on this issue since I took office one year ago and I am pleased to see that he supports my efforts to reduce the costs of health insurance for the County through changes in new union contracts.

In 2012, my administration inherited eight (8) lapsed collective bargaining agreements and we immediately began negotiating with the unions to develop new contracts in which union employees begin paying for some of the cost of health insurance, or they will move to a lower-cost health insurance plan (Value Plan) to reduce expense.  We successfully reached agreements with the CSEA Correction Officers unit and Teamsters unit in the Sheriff’s Division of Jail Management in which existing employees will pay for health insurance for the first time since 2003 and new hires will not receive 100% County paid health insurance upon retirement.  These were tremendous financial successes for the County with significant savings in the future.

We successfully reached a new contract with the CSEA Correction Officers unit in which all new employees will participate in the County’s Value health insurance plan in which acupuncture and massage services are not covered by the County.

Unfortunately, negotiated agreements with the CSEA white collar unit in which CSEA members would have paid a portion of the costs of their health insurance failed ratification.  In addition, an agreement with the Sheriff PBA unit representing sworn sheriff deputies in which they would have moved to the Value Plan (and not received acupuncture and massage services at County expense) failed when the membership voted down the contract.

The acupuncture and massage services included in the County’s Core and Enhanced health insurance plans were negotiated by then-County Executive Joel Giambra in 2003 when he persuaded County unions to move to a single health insurance provider.  While the Comptroller appears to be criticizing the 2003 agreement’s provisions, for the record, the movement to a single health insurance provider reduced the County’s health care expenses by millions from the previous arrangements, even with the inclusion of the massage and acupuncture provisions.

It should be noted, under the Triborough Amendment of the Taylor Law, the County is not legally allowed to amend the terms of any union contract after it has lapsed until a new contract is ratified.  Due to this State law, the County cannot unilaterally take away acupuncture or massage services from existing union contracts.

Finally, I would further note that unlike some other municipal governments, Erie County does not and will not offer any health insurance benefits such as plastic surgery or other questionable benefits."

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