HAMMOND | The City Council passed a controversial overhaul of the city's health insurance program Wednesday.

The 5-3 vote, with City Councilman Bob Markovich, D-at large, absent, came amid accusations by Fraternal Order of Police leaders that the new insurance plans pre-empt contract negotiations. City employees and labor leaders requested more time to understand the proposals.

"Why does this have to be forced through tonight? Put the brakes on, slow down and figure out what we are dealing with before rushing through with something," said Mike Jordan, a past president with Hammond FOP Lodge 51.

City officials estimate the new program will save the city $2.5 million to $3 million.

City Councilman Homero "Chico" Hinojosa, D-6th, requested council members table the ordinance for more time to educate employees on the proposals, but that motion failed.

"You have to bargain in good faith," Hinojosa said. "There is no hurry to pass this."

Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. acknowledged the city has received letters to meet with the FOP and Hammond Professional Firefighters Association Local 556.

"I don’t feel we need to negotiate right now," McDermott said, explaining without the ordinance he doesn't have a final product to take to those conversations.

"I understand the employees are upset. I understand that. I would be upset, too. You have to understand the situation the council and the mayor are in."

McDermott said the city needs to look at its medical costs, saying the $3 million the city pays for prescriptions a year is similar to the funding it takes to run the Parks and Recreation Department. He said the city will educate employees in the months before the new plans take effect in January.

Under the ordinance, employees can choose among three plans that range from $5.67 to $110.90 in biweekly deductions, with discounts if employees consent to blood screenings. That's compared with the $0 to $25 employees currently pay biweekly for health care.

Ed Lomeli, president of Local 556, said the City Council taking a vote on the ordinance Wednesday was premature.

"It is a hasty decision," Lomeli said. "There are so many questions that are still out there."

City Councilwoman Janet Venecz, D-at large, said she’s not heard much sympathy from residents about the amount city employees pay for insurance.

"I have heard comments like 'Who do they think they are?' and 'They better get a grip because it's not like that out in the real world.' We've had it good for a long time and I'm all in favor of the bargaining powers that's what this region was built on, but we have to take a practical look," Venecz said.

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