Two towns band together to protest increase in health premiums

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Facing unprecedented and unexpected increases in health care premiums approved by the State Health Benefits Commission last month, elected officials in South Orange and Maplewood joined with local unions, employees and school officials to ask the governor and Legislature to provide immediate relief. The two towns held a rally in Spiotta Park in South Orange on Oct. 19.

South Orange Village President Sheena Collum and Maplewood Mayor Dean Dafis announced that because of the 23-percent premium increases, the municipal property tax levy would increase by roughly 1.5 percent on health care.

“Between the towns and Essex County — in addition to our school district that is enrolled in the School Employees’ Health Benefits Plan, where premiums are going up 16 percent — the average property taxpayer will see an increase north of $200 per year on health care costs alone,” Collum said. “The alternative to a levy increase will be service cuts, deferring infrastructure investments and layoffs.”

South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education President Thair Joshua read a resolution passed unanimously by the school board calling the rate increase “exorbitant” — especially at a time when there is record inflation.

Local public employees will also see less take-home pay, sharing in the cost of the premium increases, translating into thousands of dollars.

“In this time of economic uncertainty, we all feel the effects daily. We are struggling financially, whether it is at the gas pump or the supermarket. Our members cannot afford this astronomical increase in health care premiums,” said Ken Greene, a Senior Dispatcher and Chief Steward for Teamsters Local 125. “Trenton cannot keep trying to get blood from a stone.”

Greene’s sentiment was echoed by other local unions in attendance, including the Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 12, Police Superior Officers Association Local 12A and the Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association Local 25.

“Everyone was sandbagged,” said Fran Ehret, state director for the Communications Workers of America union. “The state has a $6 billion surplus. They have COVID American Rescue Plan money, and the state is about to get $600 million when Horizon converts to a nonprofit mutual holding company, so it’s not a question of whether there is money to fix this problem.”

Maplewood Mayor Dean Dafis urged everyone to contact Gov. Phil Murphy, state treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio, Senate President Nicholas Scutari, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and local legislators, asking them to intervene.

“A deal was cut with some state public unions to limit premium increases to 3 percent. Give us equal treatment,” Dafis said. “The Legislature needs to act immediately to provide financial relief to counties, towns, schools and local public employees, and the governor needs to sign it.”

Photos Courtesy of Sheena Collum