As reported by, the union that represents some 35,000 state and local government workers is offering to make changes in New Jersey’s health insurance system that would, as one official promised, save “tens of millions of dollars.” The proposal by the Communication Workers of America came as union leaders and negotiators for Governor Chris Christie’s administration met for the first time.

Paul Alexander, president of the CWA Local 1038, said the package was drawn from reforms being instituted across the United States and from recommendations contained in a report from Harvard University. “It’s a very, very comprehensive plan,” Alexander said. “These are things being done in other areas, but for New Jersey, it may be unique. (Rising health costs) are not just a New Jersey problem, it’s a national problem.”

Alexander and CWA officials declined to detail the proposal. However, a letter sent to members and posted on a CWA website said the offer was an effort at “containing and sharing premium costs.”  The proposal also would expand the use of generic drugs and mail-order prescription services, the union letter said. The proposal would save the State about one-fifth of its premium costs the CWA claimed.

A Christie spokesman declined to comment. Christie, a Republican who frequently criticizes public sector unions, has said in recent weeks that he is looking forward to negotiating over contracts that are set to begin July 1. “It should be an adversarial situation,” Christie said on a televised interview last month. “Somebody should be representing the taxpayers.”

However, with the State facing rising health costs for current workers, a nearly $37 billion long term unfunded liability in the State portion of the pension system and another $56 billion for retiree health costs, Christie is pushing for system-wide changes through legislation. To this end, Christie has called for all state and local workers enrolled in the State’s health benefits plan to pay 30 percent of the premium.

A counter proposal by Democratic State Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney also would require premium payments by employees up to 30 percent, but that would only be for employees making more than $100,000 a year and seven years after their current contract ends.   An employee paid $60,000, close to the state average, would pay 7 percent of the premium at first, rising to 19 percent seven years later. That final figure would work out to $3,610 a year for family coverage in 2017.

Unions, however, want those health coverage changes to be adopted only through negotiation and not through state law, as proposed by Christie and Sweeney. Several hundred retired and current government workers jammed the hallways of the Statehouse as unions tried to meet with lawmakers and urge them not to pass the health care changes. Unions are arguing that the health care proposals amount to an attack on collective bargaining.