Health care expert Buddy Morris, hired by the City to help negotiate with the firefighters union, gives an overview of the City's proposal.
Health care expert Buddy Morris, hired by the City to help negotiate with the firefighters union, gives an overview of the City's proposal. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Negotiators for the City of San Antonio and the fire union left the table frustrated Monday after negotiations about health care – one of the most hotly contested sticking points in the labor contract – failed to make headway.

The central issues are control and cost. The City wants some of the roughly 1,700 firefighters to contribute to premiums for dependents; the union wants to take control of health care altogether and manage it through a union-supervised trust. But to do that, lead union negotiator Ricky J. Poole said, the fire union needs to have all of the health care costs from the past 10 years to back their demands.

On Monday, that paperwork request contributed to the stall.

The union team spent much of the meeting – after roughly three hours in separate, private meetings – deciphering and disputing health care cost figures the City had provided during the past several weeks. Poole said his team couldn’t finish its proposal until it verified the City’s health care numbers.

However, lead City negotiator Jeff Londa said the City has complied with the union’s document requests – “more than 60” – and that the fire union had ample time to review the numbers and come to the table with a proposal as planned.

“We’ve given them absolutely everything they’ve asked for,” Londa said. “If they don’t understand what they’ve asked for, that’s really not our issue.”

During the negotiations, Poole pointed to the total annual cost of firefighter health care that the City provided but wanted to see the raw data behind it.

“The [total] number is meaningless without the data,” Poole said. 

Later, he told reporters that the City’s response was “concerning.”

“The City is talking about health care spiraling out of control … and yet health care for firefighters actually over [the past three] years has gone down,” Poole said.

The City saved money when it switched from United to Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) in fiscal year 2017, but firefighters continue to have the most dependents on their plan and the highest cost, said Bob Jordan, an actuary hired by the City. According to Jordan, the City saved more than 23 percent on health care as a result of the switch to BCBS because more in-network care providers were available.

But that doesn’t change the imbalance of health care costs for first-responders versus civilians. This year, the city estimates the average health care cost for a civilian employee is $8,000, but for police it’s $16,100 and $19,650 for firefighters. The City’s target is to get the average cost for firefighters below that of police, Londa said.

The current plan is the richest in the state among other major cities; neither firefighters nor their dependents currently pay any monthly premiums. 

However, the union disputes these figures, stating the BCBS switch accounted for just 7 percent in savings, a figure the City claims is inaccurate. In fact, the City said much of the misinformation about the numbers stems from union officials mixing up fiscal and calendar year totals, which give different figures because they encompass different dates.

“It’s [comparing] apples and oranges and grapes,” said Buddy Morris, a health care advisor hired by the City.

City Attorney Andy Segovia noted that these kinds of questions about data could have been handled outside of formal negotiation sessions with “a phone call.”

The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association and the City of San Antonio continue talks on collective bargaining.
The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association and the City of San Antonio continue talks on collective bargaining. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The fire union is angling to show mismanagement of funds by the City, which could pave the way for the creation of a health care trust. To do this, the City would give the fire union a large – yet undetermined – sum of money, which would be placed into a supervised trust and administered. Premiums would be collected if needed. However, health care trusts for public safety unions are a rarity and, in a previous negotiation session, the City presented several examples of failed trusts, mostly by teacher unions, that resulted in higher health care costs.

“I don’t believe the city ultimately will consider a trust as an option,” Morris said. “There are other safer ways to accomplish the goals that don’t include a trust.”

In contrast, the City’s health care proposal is based on what the police union agreed to in 2016; firefighters would choose between a “consumer-driven” plan that does not include premiums or copays for either them or their dependents and a “value plan” that would have dependents pay a premium but does include copays. The City says about 65 percent of police officers selected the “consumer-driven” plan.

“Feedback both from officer and dependent have been very positive,” Morris said. He and his firm also advised the City during the police union negotiations. 

Extreme differences also remain between the sides regarding contract length and the evergreen clause, which leaves most terms in place in the event a new deal isn’t reached by the time the contract expires. Currently, they are more than four years into a 10-year evergreen period. The city has proposed a one-year contract with a 60-day evergreen. The union proposed a five-year contract and negotiators have said they are unlikely to support anything less than an eight-year evergreen; what the police union received in its 2016, five-year contract.

This is the seventh time the two sides have met at the negotiation table since talks began in February. Discussions will continue next Tuesday, but it’s unclear if the union will be bringing a proposal for its health care trust to the table.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org