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Change to union benefits could impact lawmakers

DES MOINES (AP) — An arbitrator is expected to announce a new contract for state workers today, and if that deal includes Gov. Terry Branstad’s request that the employees begin paying a share of their health insurance costs, legislators could soon follow suit.

That’s because legislators, like the unionized workers, have long had health plans in which they can opt for the state to pay all the costs. Legislative leaders said Wednesday that if the arbitrator decides the workers should begin sharing the costs, lawmakers would review their benefits.

“Usually what the Legislature will do, we will accept whatever is bargained and negotiated,” said Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque. “We don’t put ourselves above other state workers.”

Contract negotiations between the state and the union — the state’s largest with 20,000 workers — moved to arbitration earlier this year when the two sides could not cut a deal. Danny Homan, president of Iowa Council 61 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the two-year contract is expected Thursday. No details were available on the terms of the award.

Branstad has called for union members to start paying a portion of their health care costs, while the union is seeking to maintain current health benefits and 3 percent raises.

According to data from the Department of Administrative Services, about 89 percent of state workers are on health plans that don’t require a monthly contribution.

“We believe it’s only fair employees should contribute something to their health insurance,” said Branstad, who last year started contributing 20 percent of his benefit costs and called on other officials and workers to do the same.

Branstad argued that workers paying for health care helps the state’s bottom line, but also means workers are more responsible for their own care. He touted a recently resolved contract with the state police officers, which requires them to pay 20 percent of their health care premiums, or slightly lower if they entered a wellness program. Branstad said that arrangement incentivized healthy behavior and would help his efforts to improve health in Iowa.

But Homan criticized Branstad’s position on health care, calling the financial priorities misguided.

“This governor seems to believe that if you pay more for your coverage, that makes you a healthier person. I don’t think a heart attack will be prevented by how much you pay,” Homan said.

Since Branstad signed an executive order in July allowing state workers to voluntarily pay 20 percent of their health care premiums, a total of 93 employees have opted to contribute to their health care plans, including the governor, according to data from the Department of Administrative Services. Most of the volunteers are members of the governor’s staff, with 81 non-union employees choosing to pay more. The rest are in AFSCME or other unions.

Branstad said he’d like to see lawmakers pay a portion of health care costs even if that isn’t included in the arbitration award.

“I’d like to see them be leaders instead of followers. I think it’s the right thing to do. I’d like to see them step out and say this is the right thing to do, we want to do it for our own health and we want to do it because it’s going to save money for the taxpayers of the state of Iowa,” Branstad said.

Like state workers, lawmakers have access to a variety of benefit plans that don’t require a monthly contribution. According to state records, 127 of the 150 members of the Legislature get health benefits and other coverage from the state. They have the option to get single or family plans with no monthly premiums, though some pay about $250 a month for a more robust family plan.

Republican House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, of Hiawatha, also said he supported requiring lawmakers to contribute to their health insurance, and would like to pursue it even if the award doesn’t require contributions from state workers.

“I’m supportive of the legislative branch employees and the Legislature coming up with a contribution schedule,” Paulsen said. “I think it’s important that government be reflective of the rest of Iowa.”

Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled state House have supported legislation in recent years that would revise collective bargaining agreements and require state workers and legislators to pay a portion of health care costs. While some of those efforts got approval in the House, they did not advance in the Democratic-majority Senate.

This year, Republican Sen. Michael Breitbach, of Strawberry Point, has introduced legislation in the Senate that would require lawmakers to pay 20 percent of their health care costs. He said he already pays that himself voluntarily.

“We’re currently in negotiations with the employees of the state of Iowa and we’ve asked them to pay 20 percent of their health insurance premium and I think it would be appropriate for the legislators to do the same thing,” said Breitbach, who said he didn’t know if the bill would advance in the Senate.

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