TRENTON – Public workers protested Tuesday outside the Statehouse Annex, seeking to pressure the state not to approve significant increases in health care premiums at a meeting Wednesday.

Increases for public worker health plans vary from 12% to 24%, depending on the plan and whether they’re state, local or school employees. The State Health Benefits Commission meets Wednesday, while the panel handling health insurance for school employees meets on Monday.

Public workers filled the courtyard in front of the Statehouse Annex, though didn’t pack it tightly, in the first labor protest at the capitol complex since before the pandemic.

Public worker unions rally to protest increases in health-care premium contributions at the Statehouse Annex on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)
Public worker unions rally to protest increases in health-care premium contributions at the Statehouse Annex on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)
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Emergency room nurse Banita Herndon said workers at University Hospital see the impacts of substandard insurance for the public and are trying to prevent that for themselves.

“But for those rate increases, we will make it even more difficult for health-care workers to receive good health care. Imagine that. And we’re working in the trenches,” said Herndon, president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees Local 5089.

“I agree with Gov. (Phil) Murphy when he calls for a stronger and fairer New Jersey,” said Katwana Noble, a supervising family services specialist for the state Department of Children & Families. “But raising our health-care costs will not make New Jersey stronger or fairer.”

“We have given up raises, deferred them, to keep this state afloat,” said Jim McAsey, a staff representative for the Communications Workers of America. “It is not right for them to now come after us to pay more for our health insurance.”

McAsey said the change would cut the paychecks for the union’s 70,000 workers in New Jersey by as much as 1.5%. The state troopers’ union estimates health care costs would jump by as much as $1,800.

Public worker unions rally to protest increases in health-care premium contributions at the Statehouse Annex on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)
Public worker unions rally to protest increases in health-care premium contributions at the Statehouse Annex on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)
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The increase could also lead to higher property taxes, for the reason outlined by Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora at the rally.

“Even as management, the cities pay 70% of health care benefits,” Gusciora said. “Our costs go up.”

Higher health care costs are among the categories of spending exempt from the 2% cap on annual increases in property tax levies – so the change would be more likely to cause tax hikes than spending cuts.

Not all municipalities and school districts are part of the state’s health benefits plans so could see lower premium increases.

Public worker unions rally to protest increases in health-care premium contributions at the Statehouse Annex on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)
Public worker unions rally to protest increases in health-care premium contributions at the Statehouse Annex on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. (Michael Symons/Townsquare Media NJ)
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The actuary for the state plans said costs have increased more than expected as people sought out health care they had delayed in the early months of the pandemic.

An alternative health-care approach for public workers managed by Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield hasn’t gotten the participation, and therefore generated the savings, that were expected. The unions say the state should claw back what it has paid Horizon for results that weren’t delivered.

Michael Jackson of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said the because the unexpected costs are rooted in the COVID pandemic the state should use federal pandemic recovery funds to offset it.

“New Jersey received billions of dollars,” Jackson said. “In receiving those billions of dollars, not one cent was allocated to help negate a raise in health care.”

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Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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