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LAWYERS LIKELY TO SHARE HEALTH COSTS

The Niagara County Legislature will likely vote Tuesday to force all of its part-time lawyers to pay a share of their health insurance premiums, but it's also poised to give a near-minimum wage job to a lawyer who will use it to gain lifetime county-paid health insurance.

Legislator Harry J. Apolito, D-Lockport, will seek a vote Tuesday on his plan to force all part-time lawyers to pay 10 percent of their health premiums.

There are 36 part-time attorneys; 28 take county health coverage and of those, 12 started with the county before 1993 and are entitled to free benefits. Attorneys hired since 1993 are already paying 10 percent.

Apolito also wants to bar first-time county lawyers from receiving the free lifetime medical coverage the county gives to those who work 20 years.

Legislator Richard E. Updegrove, R-Lockport, has introduced a resolution that copies Apolito's, except for leaving out a provision barring the lawyers from the county self-insured health plan. Apolito would force them into a Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan that he says is about half the price.

At previous meetings, the Republicans argued that the county doesn't really pay premiums for the self-insured plan. They said money is merely allocated for each employee for use if needed to pay claims.

Apolito asserted, "There's an expense and the expense is related to a property tax increase."

Updegrove asserted, "If Harry's resolution had been in effect four years ago, it would have cost us an extra $200,000."

GOP lawmakers have said the average cost of the program will go up if the lawyers are excluded, on the theory that most are healthy and make few claims.

"We want this to pass in some form. We want the attorneys to pay 10 percent. We want to eliminate the lifetime benefit. Why wouldn't we? We eliminated our own," Updegrove said.

He was referring to a resolution this year by Legislator Glenn S. Aronow, R-Lockport, which made the same change to legislators' health coverage that Apolito wants to impose on the lawyers.

"If they think the self-insurance plan is cheaper than Blue Cross/Blue Shield, why was there a resolution from Glenn Aronow to move the legislators to Blue Cross?" Apolito asked.

Meanwhile, Robert M. Pusateri, a lawyer who worked 19 years as an assistant public defender before being fired in 2002, is to be appointed assigned counsel administrator Tuesday at a salary of $5.50 an hour.

If Pusateri lasts a year, he will have 20 years in and receive free lifetime health insurance.

"I'm hoping that would be the case, but nobody's told me I only have this job for a year," Pusateri said. He's a Democrat, but he said GOP legislators called him about the job.

It reviews the costs and performance of outside attorneys hired to defend suspects who are eligible to receive public defender services but can't because of lawyers' conflicts of interest.

Legislator Gerald E. Meal, R-Royalton, is sponsoring Pusateri's appointment. "He understands everything about (the duties)," Meal said. "I felt bad because he got fired."

Pusateri was sacked by then-Public Defender Joseph F. Townsend in a dispute over case assignments.

Pusateri threatened to sue the county unless he was granted lifetime medical benefits despite not having completed 20 years.

Then-County Attorney Morton H. Abramowitz agreed to make the deal, but then-Legislature Chairman Bradley E. Erck blocked it. As a 19-year veteran, Pusateri must pay 25 percent of his premiums.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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