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Transit employees face severe healthcare hikes

Rapid transit employees address Grand Rapids City Commission on Tuesday, August 23.
Hilary Farrell

Monthly healthcare premiums for Rapid union employees are set to increase hundreds of dollars beginning October 1, under a state law regarding expired union contracts.

The increased premiums start at $238.23 a month for a single high-deductible HSA and rise to $886.99 a month for a family PPO, according to paperwork provided to WGVU. A similar family plan currently costs about $218 a month, according to employees.

Rapid employees and Amalgamated Transit Union local 836 representatives brought the matter to Tuesday night’s Grand Rapids City Commission meeting. There, they addressed officials and Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, who serves on the Rapid Interurban Transit Partnership board.

Kendra Bowman says she’s worked at the Rapid for more than three years.

"I’m a mom and I have two kids, so I’m a family of three. There’s no way I’ll be able to afford this insurance," she says. "There’s no way I’ll probably be able to afford to live where I live at, if this insurance goes into effect October 1."

Some employees say the overall jump will equal up to a third of current income.

Both The Rapid and the ATU cite PA 54 of 2011 as the reason behind the financial burden. The act was signed into law five years ago and states employees under an expired contract "shall bear any increased cost of maintaining those benefits that occurs after the expiration date".

The local union contract expired about a year ago, following a two-month extension. 

The Rapid says the Blue Cross/Blue Shield increase stems from high levels of employee use. Seven claims "with values in excess of $250,000 each" were highlighted in a July board memo putting the proposed increase at 52.67 percent. The Rapid also says alternative, lower-cost plans were presented but not chosen.

“The Rapid recognizes the financial hardship these increased costs may play on employees and their families,” the transit agency says in an emailed statement. “[W]e remain committed to reaching an agreement through a fair collective bargaining process that is in the best interest of The Rapid, its employees and the communities it serves.” 

Employees and union representatives say a slight increase occurred in health plans last year, but nothing this high. They also say they were unaware of the changes until this month, and were not presented with all available options.

Paperwork provided to WGVU indicates the options through Blue Cross/Blue Shield that were presented to employees included less severe premium increases, but came with new and increased co-pays and deductibles up to twice as high. 

On Wednesday, union and board leadership sat down to bargain following months of stalled talks and several legal filings in courts and state commissions. 

The Rapid’s next board meeting is next Wednesday.

Hilary is a General Assignment and Enterprise reporter for WGVU Public Media. She joined WGVU in September 2014 after several years of experience as a local news reporter, anchor and photojournalist in Midland, Saginaw and Bay counties. She's also worked as a financial and business reporter and audio field producer.
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