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Union members protest a planned state health plan rate hike at the statehouse on September 13, 2022. (Photo: Joey Fox for the New Jersey Globe).

Unions descend on Trenton to protest proposed state health benefits hike

Frustration with Murphy administration pervades rally

By Joey Fox, September 13 2022 1:43 pm

With the State Health Benefits Commission (SHBC) set to vote tomorrow on a major rate hike on the State Health Benefits Plan (SHBP), union members galore came to the New Jersey Statehouse today calling for a delay of the vote and a reduction of the proposed increase.

Hundreds of members from the Communications Workers of America, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and other unions were in attendance, chanting “Health care is a human right!” and castigating health care companies like Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, which administers the SHBP.

“When you look on the TV and you see these health care executives – they do pretty well for themselves,” Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora said. “They’re the ones that need to take the pay cut!”

As reported by Politico NJ’s Daniel Han, however, State Treasurer and SHBC chair Elizabeth Maher Muoio has said that the planned vote on the rate hike must happen tomorrow; otherwise the open enrollment period beginning on October 1 might be affected. At today’s rally, organizers read off the Treasury Department’s phone number, urging union members to call and demand the vote be delayed.

While Gov. Phil Murphy has largely stayed out of the spotlight on the issue, which first came to a head in July, frustration with his administration was a running theme of the rally. Murphy has generally been regarded as a strong ally of the state’s unions and has received the lion’s share of union endorsements in both of his gubernatorial campaigns, a relationship that union members seemed to draw on at the rally.

“Governor Murphy, hear our call / Affordable health care’s right for all!”, one chant went. Another was “You say fairer, you say stronger / We won’t take it any longer!” – seemingly a play on Murphy’s “Stronger, Fairer, Forward” re-election campaign slogan and political action committee.

“It is time for the state to step up for our workers,” said Department of Children and Families specialist Katwana Noble, followed by chants of “You need to step up!”

If the proposal does pass at tomorrow’s SHBC meeting, rates are set to rise by about 20% for those covered by the plan. Murphy has said that he supports finding some compromise, though it’s not clear what that might be.

“We are working doggedly … to try to find some common ground that supports and has the back of our public sector employees,” Murphy said yesterday.

State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro), whose Hamilton Township-based district contains a huge number of state employees, called the proposed hike “outrageous” in a statement released shortly after the rally and said that she hopes future increases can be determined through a better and more open process.

“We need to reach a new and fair agreement that puts New Jersey’s public sector workers first and ensures their continued in-network access to state hospitals, laboratory services, and physicians,” Greenstein said. “Though there is no immediate resolution, I look forward to revisiting negotiations and continuing our work with various public sector organizations and agencies to reduce the proposed costs.”

This story was updated at 4:52 p.m. with comment from State Sen. Greenstein.

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