Firefighters lose court battle over benefits

jhewlett@herald-leader.comDecember 6, 2011 

The Lexington firefighters' union has lost a court battle against the local government stemming from changes in health insurance for city workers.

After hearing testimony from Chris Bartley, the president of the union, and listening to arguments by lawyers on both sides for about two hours Monday, Fayette Circuit Judge Pamela Goodwine declined to issue a temporary injunction prohibiting the local government from implementing any health insurance plan selected for city workers without a recommendation from a benefits advisory committee.

Lexington Professional Firefighters IAFF Local 526 had sought an injunction, saying the local government did not create a benefits advisory committee to make a health insurance recommendation to city leaders before insurance coverage for 2012 was selected, a violation of a collective bargaining contract between the city and the union.

City workers have expressed anger at higher health insurance rates for 2012. The local government's current health insurance Platinum Plan, in which 89 percent of city workers are enrolled, will cost several hundred dollars more a month. The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council voted in October to help employees with the increased costs by providing them with an extra $75 to $200 a month, up to a total of $3.8 million.

In the past, the local government has had a benefits advisory committee, which included representatives from the firefighters' union and all sectors of LFUCG employees, the union said in its lawsuit seeking an injunction, which was filed in November.

Goodwine said Monday that city leaders would not be required to follow recommendations made by a benefits advisory committee. She said they also would not be bound by the decision of an arbitrator concerning a grievance filed by the union over the lack of creation of a benefits advisory committee. The union filed the grievance on Oct. 31, and indicated in its lawsuit seeking the injunction that an arbitrator would not be able to reach a decision on the grievance before the new health insurance program goes into effect.

Goodwine said that accepted standards for issuing a temporary injunction, including one that the plaintiff would suffer irreparable harm otherwise, had not been met.

"We're all facing tough economic times, and everybody has had to make concessions," Goodwine said. She said there had been no testimony at Monday's hearing showing that the local government tried to hide something or wasn't completely forthright with city workers when it came to health insurance for next year.

"The court recognized that we have been up front and transparent with our employees about the increasing cost of health care," said Susan Straub, spokeswoman for Lexington Mayor Jim Gray. "No one likes these increases, but we have found new ways to lessen the impact on employees through a free employee clinic, low-cost pharmacy, wellness educational opportunities and supplements for families. We have also offered new plan options and provided employees with the information they need to make the best choices for their budget."

Before Monday's hearing got under way, Goodwine disclosed to those present in the courtroom that her husband is a local government retiree, having retired as a juvenile probation officer. She said her husband has health care coverage through the County Employees Retirement System, but she is not on her husband's plan. Goodwine also disclosed that her former husband was, and might still be, a firefighter for the local government.

Attorney Buddy Cutler, who represented the union, said the union had wanted to negotiate benefits when it began representing local government firefighters in 2005, but that it gave up on that idea, agreeing instead to be allowed to have a voice in the benefits selection process through a benefits advisory committee.

"The question is whether it (a benefits advisory committee) really would have made any difference," city attorney Keith Moorman said. An injunction would not stop the cost of health insurance premiums from going up, he said.

"This is a needless exercise to go through in these economic times," he said.

About 6,400 people, including employees, dependents and retirees, are covered under the city's health insurance program. For the past three fiscal years, the city has been millions of dollars over budget for health insurance.

Reach Jennifer Hewlett at (859) 231-3308 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3308.

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