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It’s hard to imagine any group of public employees in Wisconsin having a sweeter deal on health insurance costs than city employees in Madison.
Most make no payment toward their insurance premiums and are in plans that require no co-pays and have no deductibles.
So Madison wasn’t cited by state Rep. Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) when she blistered Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial budget-repair bill.
The measure would require workers to pay more of the costs of pensions and health care, effectively forcing them to take a pay cut. One of Walker’s justifications for trying to sharply curtail public sector collective bargaining rights in the process is to give local units of government the same opportunity to impose similar costs on their employees.
In turn, that money could be used to offset reductions in state aid in the two-year budget starting July 1, 2011. Walker has said state employees should pay 12.6 percent of their health insurance premiums.
Shilling called Walker’s argument false and "ridiculous" because, she said, many local government already get more than that from employees.
"The truth is, local school districts and municipalities that have been requiring employees to pay for health and pension benefit costs are going to be hit hard by Walker’s cuts," Shilling, a member of the Legislature’s budget-reviewing Joint Finance Committee, said in a Feb. 27, 2011 news release.
She added: "Walker claims municipalities will be able to force employees to pay 12 percent of their health insurance premiums, but many cities already require employees to pay 20, 30, or even 40 percent of their health insurance premiums."
Now, that’s a big number and, potentially, a big development.
We’re going to tackle Schilling’s statement with this caveat: We’re not looking in this item at the assumptions Walker and his budget crunchers used to calculate the prospective savings for local government. We’re looking at whether many school districts and cities already make employees pay between 20 percent and 40 percent of health care costs.
We asked Shilling for backup on her claim.
Her legislative aide, Anthony Palese, pointed us to a survey of school district cost-sharing on health insurance, conducted annually by the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.
That annual survey showed that only 6 of the 130 school districts that responded are asking for more than 12 percent in premiums on family coverage. The average: 4 percent.
Only one district, Abbotsford, fell into the 20 percent to 40 percent range that Shilling claims is common -- the district asks 46 percent of employees on family plans. The district pays more in salaries than nearby districts, said district administrator Reed Welsh.
But the current year data is not complete, in part because many contracts are still unsettled. So let’s take a look back to the previous year’s survey.
In the 2009-10 survey, the schools association found that out of 388 districts, the average ask from employees was 5 percent.
Only 14 districts were getting more than the 12 percent benchmark set by the governor.
Only five of the 388 fell into the wider range -- 20 percent to 40 percent -- that Shilling outlined.
We noticed a possible explanation for Shilling’s belief that "many" local units were already getting more than that 12 percent: there were two school districts in western Wisconsin -- Onalaska and Holmen -- that got 20 percent from employees in 2009-’10.
The city of Onalaska also receives 20 percent from its employees.
Both communities are near La Crosse and Shilling’s district. So her perspective on it may be skewed.
In her statement, Shilling also referred to "municipalities" already charging employees similar amounts.
There is no equivalent annual survey of cities, and Shilling’s staff could point to none asking 20 to 40 percent, as contended.
We sampled a few big cities.
Madison: The city’s no-cost insurance option, selected by most full-time union workers there, is one end of the scale -- and nowhere near 20 percent to 40 percent.
La Crosse: City workers in the family plan pay 3.1 percent if they undergo a health assessment, which almost all do. Single people pay about 12 percent.
Milwaukee: City workers -- union or nonunion -- pay 3 percent to 8 percent in the family plan if they do the wellness tests.
Wausau: Workers pay 10 percent with a co-pay only for emergency room visits.
That 10 percent in Wausau is pretty typical, according to the labor union that represents municipal employees in nearly 600 bargaining units across Wisconsin.
Most full-time employees in those locales now pay about 10 percent of their premiums, up significantly in the last decade, said Jack Bernfeld, associate director, AFSCME Wisconsin Council 40.
So, what’s the bottom line?
Shilling contended that Walker was misguided in claiming that communities had a lot of room for savings by getting employees to kick in more of health insurance costs because "many" already get double or even triple what Walker is asking.
But the school data she points to shows that’s true in only a tiny scattering of districts. In cities, 10 percent is typical, and Shilling could name only one city in the 20 to 40 percent range.
We rate Shilling’s statement False.
State Rep. Jennifer Shilling, news release, Feb. 27, 2011
Interview with Anthony Palese, legislative aide to Rep. Jennifer Shilling, Feb. 28, 2011
Interview with Reed Welsh, district administrator Abbotsford Schools, March 2, 2011
Interview with Michael Brady, employee benefits director, City of Milwaukee, March 1, 2011
Interview with Audra Tooke, employee benefits coordinator, City of La Crosse, March 1, 2011
Interview with Michael Lipski, compensation and benefits manager, City of Madison, March 1, 2011
Interview with Terry VanOrder, confidential administrative specialist, City of Wausau, March 1, 2011
Interview with Ila Koss, human resources manager, City of Wausau, March 1, 2011
Interview with Dan Thompson, executive director, Wisconsin League of Muncipalities, March 1, 2011
Interview with Dan Rossmiller, director of government relations, Wisconsin Association of School Boards, March 1, 2011
Gov. Scott Walker, press release on local governments, Feb. 23, 2011
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Walker’s budget cuts would touch most Wisconsinites, March 1, 2011
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Walker calls for cuts or big layoffs, Feb. 11, 2001
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