The New Bedford City Council voted against Mayor Jon Mitchell’s proposal to adopt a measure that would allow the city, under state law, to mediate health care costs.

The council voted 9-2 against the mayor’s proposal, which would have allowed a neutral arbiter to resolve differences between unions and the mayoral administration when negotiating healthcare costs. Mitchell asked the council to consider this proposal to address rising healthcare costs in the fiscal 2024 budget.

Under Massachusetts General Law Chapter 23B sections 21-23, any municipality can change its health insurance provider by a majority vote in the legislative body. In New Bedford's case, this would be through the City Council.

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Councilor-at-Large Shane Burgo said the proposal would hurt those in unions the most, arguing the city’s current health insurance plan has been effective since its inception in 2007.

“This has come before us before, and it's been answered,” Burgo said. “This isn’t a vote to manage costs, it’s a vote to usurp a process that's been working since 2007.”

Burgo also accused the mayor of not being proactive in negotiating with several unions such as the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Teachers.

Ward 5 Councilor Scott Lima said he and Council President Linda Morad were against the proposal in principle but wanted to send it to the Finance Subcommittee for further evaluation.

“This has no chance of being approved by the City Council,” Lima said. “But I did want to refer it to the committee.”

Mitchell expressed disappointment at the council’s decision and argued the measure would help save money in the long run.

“There’s no dispute that the rise of employee health care costs is crowding out the city’s ability to pay for essential services and is placing increasing pressure on taxpayers,” Mitchell said in a statement. “The Council’s continued refusal to adopt the same measure that virtually every city and town in Southeastern Massachusetts has used to reduce their health care costs will exacerbate the problem and no doubt prompt the public to question whether city government is faithfully responding to its needs.”

Members from several unions attended the meeting on Thursday and applauded the council’s decision to not take up Mitchell’s proposal.

Lisa Lemieux of the AFL-CIO said Mitchell should have met with the unions before asking the council to approve the proposal.

“In the city of New Bedford, we have a law that requires our city to negotiate with our unions,” Lemieux said.  “That's where these conversations need to be happening, not on the floor of the City Council.”

AFT member Nicholas Gula said he was pleased with the council’s decision but understood Mitchell’s reasoning for trying to change the city’s healthcare plan for employees.

“Healthcare costs are rising and there’s not much you can do about that,” he said. “I think a solution to this would be a Medicare or healthcare-for-all system so that people don't have to pay as much and costs wouldn’t be so high. Everyone deserves healthcare.”

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