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Ruling against city on police health insurance upheld

Buffalo's police union won a legal victory Thursday when a judge agreed with an arbitrator that the city violated a contract by imposing a single health insurer without negotiating the change with officers.

State Supreme Court Justice John A. Michalek rejected the city's claims that arbitrator Jeffrey M. Selchick was wrong when he ruled that the city had a legal duty to bargain with the union before it make made changes to insurance coverage in 2004.

Michalek's ruling could set the stage for further court battles between the city and one of its largest unions. Acting City Corporation Counsel David Rodriguez wouldn't say whether an appeal will be launched.

"We respect the judge's decision, and we are exploring all the options," Rodriguez said.

Matthew C. VanVessem, the city's privately retained attorney in the arbitration case, could not be reached to comment.

W. James Schwan, the chief attorney for the Police Benevolent Association, said Selchick on Sept. 29 will begin the second part of the arbitration proceeding to determine the financial "damages" that the city owes police officers, including retirees, who have been forced to pay into the single-carrier health system for the past few years.

Schwan said he has yet to calculate the full extent of the city's financial liability in the case. However, PBA President Robert P. Meegan Jr. insisted Thursday that the health insurance changes imposed by the city have cost the typical officer thousands of dollars.

"The city has seen six years of savings, and it has been on the backs of police officers," Meegan said.

"The contract clearly states that they cannot make changes [in health insurance] without negotiating first with the union. So this was a willful act of stealing from our officers," Meegan added.

In the past, some city officials have argued that the health insurance changes did not adversely impact officers. Meegan challenged the assertion, claiming the changes have increased out-of-pocket expenses for officers and caused other problems.

Separately, the Buffalo Teachers Federation is fighting the school system in court over the system's switch to a single-carrier plan in 2005 to allegedly save millions of dollars in taxpayer expenses while allegedly providing similar health insurance benefits as offered by a multicarrier system.

e-mail: mgryta@buffnews.com and bmeyer@buffnews.com

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