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Bargaining under way on new health plan

Serious bargaining on a new health insurance plan for Niagara County employees began last week, according to union leaders and County Manager Gregory D. Lewis.

At a Thursday bargaining session, Lewis and representatives of the county's six unions discussed confidential proposals for a new health plan that will limit union employees to one health insurer, although that insurer may offer multiple options.

At present, county workers may choose from a self-funded county plan patterned after traditional BlueCross BlueShield, along with a batch of health maintenance organizations.

Lewis has said the county could save as much as $2 million a year under one insurer. Talks deadlocked last year, with Lewis insisting the county should design a benefit package and put it out for bids from insurance companies, while unions wanted BlueCross.

Lewis said Friday the unions made a new proposal in advance, and the county was ready with a counterproposal Thursday. "We're just at the beginning of the discussion," Lewis said. "It was a good work session."

"Each side gave a little. Neither side gave enough to make an agreement. We're still negotiating," said Edward McDonald, president of the county's second largest union, Local 182 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

"It's progressing. I think we do [make progress] every time we sit down," said Thomas Lafornia, president of Unit 7650 of the Civil Service Employees Association, the largest county union.

Lafornia said the union chiefs will sit down for a strategy session Tuesday, while Lewis is expected to brief the County Legislature that night in a closed session. Another bargaining session is set for Friday.

Risk and Insurance Director Jennifer R. Pitarresi said nonunion county workers have been paying 10 percent of their premiums since May 2002, as well as making co-payments of $5 or $10 for prescriptions. "From May 2002 to date, that's $845,000 in savings," she said.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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