More than 100 firefighters and paramedics spoke out against an increase in their out-of-pocket health insurance costs this morning at a meeting of the North Shore Fire Department Board of Directors.
Leading the charge against the increase in deductibles was Steve Tippel, the president of North Shore Professional Firefighters Local 1444.
"You're turning your back on the very ones that are protecting you. How are you going to justify what you're doing to their families," he said to the board of village presidents from seven North Shore communities. "This is wrong, and you should be ashamed of yourselves."
Although the insurance plans are not finalized, the deductible for a single plan is expected to increase from $1,500 to $4,000, and a family plan deductible will increase from $3,000 to $8,000.By altering insurance plans – which was recently allowed under Act 32 – NSFD expects to save $175,000 in insurance premiums per year. Those savings will be put in a savings account that will help offset $30 million in unfunded retirement liabilities over the next 30 years.
Currently, North Shore firefighters pay 5 percent of their overall insurance costs. When they retire –on average between the ages of 50 and 53 – the fire department pays 65 percent of their insurance costs until they reach Medicare eligibility at 65.
NSFD would not be able to reduce its 65 percent contribution to retirees’ health insurance coverage unless it was mutually agreed upon by the firefighters union.
NSFD Chief Robert Whitaker said the board of directors was forced to make some difficult choices to fund rising health insurance costs for firefighters and paramedics over the next 20 years.
“Everyone on the board of directors understands this is a big change, but the quandary is how do they pay for the benefits they have to provide by the labor contract," he said. "The solution is to either increase taxes, make reductions in services or change the benefit you provide."But still, Tippel believes the insurance cuts could have been avoided.
"The retirement obligation has been well known since the department was formed," Tippel said "Instead of putting aside the millions of dollars in savings enjoyed as a result of consolidation for future obligations, the municipalities have chosen to direct it elsewhere."
The Board of Directors approved its budget Tuesday morning, with each of the seven municipalities agreeing to pay a 1.5 percent increase from last year's contribution. Each community's contribution to NSFD will be built into the municipal budget.