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Preckwinkle want judges to pay for their own health insurance

Monday, October 07, 2013
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

It's war!

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle moved today to require Cook County Circuit Court judges to begin paying for health insurance they effectively get free — ratcheting up an increasingly nasty feud between her and Chief Judge Tim Evans.

In a statement, Ms. Preckwinkle said that, given the county's financial needs, she is asking all "less than full-time county workers" — judges draw most of their pay from the state, but the county provides a small portion — to pick up the full share of their health benefits themselves.

The measure would apply to part-time crossing guards and commissioners of the Chicago Board of Elections. But that's only a small portion of the roughly 400 people who would be covered by Ms. Preckwinkle's proposal.

The others all are judges.

Ms. Preckwinkle said the measure would save county taxpayers $4 million a year — an average of $10,000 for each of 400 workers. "We want to ensure that county employees and officials have access to health benefits, but the approach has to be fair," Ms. Preckwinkle said, nothing that the average county employee pays $112 a month, but judges pay "less than $1 each month." She added, "We're taking reasonable steps to improve how we manage the county's benefits."

Rubbing a bit of salt into the wound, Ms. Preckwinkle's plan also would eliminate flexible spending accounts for roughly 260 judges enrolled in a health maintenance organization plan.

The $1,500-per-judge stipend cost the county $288,000 in 2012, she said.

Ms. Preckwinkle's office said the cost of insurance ranges from $400 to $1,700 a month per worker, depending on the level of coverage and family size. Those who choose not to pay that will "have the option of obtaining health care through a (Obamacare) health insurance marketplace, accessing health care through other employment, or accessing the health care plan of a spouse, partner or family member," she said.

Mr. Evans' office said it just heard of Ms. Preckwinkle's proposal and did not have an immediate response.

But the proposal came after rising tensions between the president and the chief judge over whether judges are putting in enough hours and otherwise taking reasonable steps to cut a backlog of old cases.

The feud has reached such a level that Chief Illinois Supreme Court Judge Thomas Kilbride recently stepped in, effectively setting up the high court as a mediator among the warring Cook County parties.

A spokesman for Ms. Preckwinkle, Owen Kilmer, denied that today's move is designed to put on some pressure in the talks with Justice Kilbride. "It's not a tactic," Mr. Kilmer said. "This is about fairness and the responsible management of county benefits."

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