Fire Union Chief Negotiator Ricky Poole
Ricky Poole is the fire union's chief contract negotiator. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The firefighters union on Tuesday proposed a union-managed health care trust, but the City’s labor contract negotiation team said their proposal lacks the specificity required to give it serious consideration.

The two sides went back and fourth for hours during its eighth meeting with little to no progress made. The union’s lead negotiator, Ricky J. Poole, said he can’t trust the health care claim data that the City provides.

“It’s disappointing,” the City’s lead negotiator Jeff Londa told reporters. “We expected a real health care proposal that we could go back and forth on and we didn’t get it.”

The benefits of the health care trust, Poole said, will be worked out once the City gives the union the data it needs.

“As that information comes in, it allows us to solidify those numbers,” Poole said. 

Meanwhile, the City has provided thousands of pages of health care and other data for the union over the past few years, and its team said it has complied with most of the union’s requests for information. The two sides spent the better part of the morning debating the accuracy and availability of data the City provided.

A health care trust would take management of health care away from the City, something the union has discussed since court-ordered mediation sessions in 2017, Londa said.

There’s no detail then. There’s no detail now,” he said. “… How can the union consider itself capable of operating a health care plan that they’ve never operated before when they can’t even put together [a proposal] in two years?”

Once the union has verified data, Poole said, it can formulate a specific plan – and it would like to see that the City take the idea seriously before continuing to work out the details.

“I just need to know if the City is willing to consider the trust scenario,” he said. “If that’s the case then we can have a wonderful discussion” about health care benefits, operation, premiums, and setting up the trust.

So far, the union has proposed a trust into which the City would pay $19,000 per firefighter per year. Costs above that, Poole said, would be covered by the employee – but the rates and benefits are unknown. It’s still unclear whether the City would pay in a lump sum under this plan or over the course of a year. The union estimates that, according to projections the City provided in 2017, the City will be avoiding more than $114 million in health care costs over five years.

Since then, the City has realized cost savings by switching health care providers, the City said, so the total “cost avoidance” is likely lower.

“The argument that avoidance will pay for it is not really accurate,” Londa said. “The question really is not ‘Does the city have money somewhere they can divert to the union’s health care program?’ … The issue is whether the proposal of the union is a reasonable expenditure of taxpayer money, and our effort has been to show that it’s not.”

He pointed to the failed firefighters union trust in Fort Worth as an example of how wrong it could go financially. Union officials point to a successful, relatively new trust in Omaha, Nebraska.

Through San Antonio’s consumer-driven and value plan, the City currently pays $16,100 per police officer. Its costs to maintain the current fire health care plan, which does not collect any premiums from firefighters or their dependents, is $19,650 per firefighter annually.

The City’s team hasn’t yet calculated if the union’s proposal would keep public safety spending at or below 66 percent of the general budget, which City Council has adopted as the ceiling for spending on public safety.

The union said its wage and health care proposal keeps public safety at 63 percent of the general fund.

Poole also introduced a new section to the contract that he said would automatically approve most claims of cancer under workers compensation, which the City funds.

The City interprets the state’s law regarding firefighters and cancer to mean that three cancers – testicular, prostate, and Hodgkin’s lymphoma – are presumed to be caused by the work firefighters perform.

“We just want to put into the contract what we believe the law is and what we believe the science affords and that is that firefighters are far more likely to get many different types of cancer and when firefighters contract those cancers while they’re working as firefighters there should be a presumption that those cancers are covered by their workers compensation,” Poole said.

While the City isn’t breaking the law, it’s not following the correct interpretation, he added. 

Following the recommendations of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), Assistant City Attorney Liz Provencio said, there are three cancers that are likely to be caused by the work of a firefighter and many others that may contribute to it.

Including most cancers, Londa said, would not be appropriate.

“I think everybody agrees that some cancers can be caused by the job of a firefighter, but that does not mean that all cancers are caused by the job of a firefighter,” he said.

Under the union’s health care trust proposal, most claims of cancer would fall under workers compensation and not in the union-controlled trust, Poole said.

“We believe that the science supports that those [cancer] claims are more than likely due to the job,” Poole said. “And if [the City] can prove [a claim] wrong, go ahead and do it.”

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