NEWARK, NJ – A resolution authorizing the County of Essex to enter active and retired employees into the State Health Benefits Plan to be effective Jan. 1, 2017, was affirmed by the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders board meeting at the Hall of Records on Wednesday, Sept. 28.

According to the board, this unprecedented decision was made with more than 3,000 Essex County employees and retirees’ best interest in mind in an effort to save taxpayers $10.4 million and also to ensure that a lay-off of more than 200 county workers would not occur. Despite the large majority of unions voting in support of the resolution, a few union leaders spoke out asking the board to vote no.

The Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders is supportive of labor unions, and under the direction of Freeholder President Britnee Timberlake, was the first governing body to petition the State to raise the minimum wage to $15.00/per hour and has since brought all non-seasonal employees up to a $15/hour rate. Furthermore, the board is known to ensure that project labor agreements are upheld and members such as Wayne Richardson and Leonard Luciano are union leaders.

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In response to those unions wanting the board to vote no, Timberlake said, “We are a pro-union board but this vote is about saving tax payers $10.4 million-dollars and preventing the loss of jobs.”

“Citizens cannot afford another $10.4-million-dollar tax hike – we just do not have the extra money,” said Freeholder At-Large Lebby Jones. 

A letter from the county executive was sent to all county employees inviting them to attend one of the six information sessions being offered to explain the changes to union leaders and workers. According to the board, it should be noted that this healthcare plan is equal or better to previous plans and, in many cases, will save taxpayers money.

The current premium paid by the County for Employee Benefits Plan offered by Aetna is $96,665,835. The county’s contract period with Aetna expires Dec. 31, 2016.

Over the course of several rounds of negotiations with Aetna, an increase of 14 percent over the current premium was provided by Aetna as its last and final offer for contract year 2017. This increase would result in a $10.5-million increase in the premium currently paid by the County. On Sept. 8, the State Health Benefits Plan (SHBP) released its 2017 rates.

Among the attractive elements of the 2017 offering is a 0.1-percent reduction (v. 2016) in the state for its active employees. If Essex County moves into the SHBP in 2017, the savings will be more than $9.7 million versus the last and best 2017 offer of Aetna, the current provider. No other commercial provider made a viable offer for 2017, according to the board.

The Administration’s conclusion was to recommend that the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders pass the resolution authoring the participation in the SHBP beginning in January 2017.