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    About half the more than 430,000 people covered by Group Insurance Commission plans will see a decrease in their premiums in fiscal 2019 and on average there will be no increase in premiums.

    By Andy Metzger
    STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

    BOSTON, FEB. 22, 2018....About half the more than 430,000 people covered by Group Insurance Commission plans will see a decrease in their premiums in fiscal 2019 and on average there will be no increase in premiums, GIC Executive Director Roberta Herman said Thursday.

    "This is kind of unheard of," Herman told the GIC board Thursday. She said, "This is not something that you should expect to see year after year."

    The commission provides health coverage to state and municipal employees, covering 436,000 people with a budget of over $2 billion.

    The GIC had a goal of premiums increasing by 2 percent in fiscal 2019, and health care costs generally increase annually. The market indicated the GIC could see increases of 6 to 9 percent in fiscal 2019, according to the GIC.

    "It's all going up, so all of the game has been trying to not go up so much," Herman said.

    Health care is a big budget item to begin with so increases can have a dramatic effect on other spending priorities.

    Open enrollment for the GIC begins April 4. At the last meeting, the commission unanimously voted on medical plan design changes that the commission said would reduce deductibles across regional and limited network plans "where possible" and reduce some co-payments for specialists.

    Some enrollees will see an increase in premiums. Those enrolled in Tufts Medicare Preferred will see a year-over-year increase of 10.3 percent on July 1, according to Herman. Elderly retirees in Pool 2 will also see increases.

    The cost avoidance was wrung out of the same procurement process that caused so much consternation last month when the GIC cut three insurers from its portfolio. After an outcry from union leaders and lawmakers, the GIC backtracked on that proposal, which had been designed to render cost savings.

    Going out to the market netted some savings even without dropping insurers, as did the GIC's decision to take over control of pharmacy benefits management, and so did its decision to make the whole system self-insured so that the government bears the risk and insurance companies handle the administration, according to Herman. The state was previously partially self-insured, Herman said.

    "Everything was a little this, a little that. Pharmacy was a little carved-in, a little carved-out. Self-insurance was a little self-insured, a little fully insured. And behavioral health was a little carved-out, a little carved in," Herman told reporters after Thursday's meeting. "Just having a consistent approach, if nothing else what that does is it helps you understand, analyze, develop appropriate interventions for your members."

    While the procurement process was credited with delivering cost reductions this year, it would be unfeasible to go out to bid for health plans every year, according to Herman, who said procurements are "incredibly labor-intensive" and can be disruptive.

    Timothy Sullivan, a fourth-grade Brockton teacher who represents the Massachusetts Teachers Association on the GIC, said health insurance premiums staying flat is "good for the members" overall.

    "I just want to say how much I appreciate the leadership of the commission," said Melvin Kleckner, the town administrator of Brookline who represents the Massachusetts Municipal Association on the commission. Holding health insurance rates flat will have a "significant" impact on Brookline's budget, he said.

    "Today's vote will keep the overall average price from increasing for GIC members, which is welcome news for them, the GIC and the state budget," said Administration and Finance Secretary Michael Heffernan in a statement.

    The GIC on Thursday also expanded access to counseling, giving all public employees who qualify for the state-run health coverage access to 30 free minutes of legal consultation, free financial advice and a 24-hour hotline for other crises.

    Right now there is a patchwork of "employee assistance program" offerings through a variety of providers, according to the GIC, which selected the vendor Optum to provide the services to all active GIC-benefit eligible employees and their families.

    The counseling would be available for active employees whether they buy insurance through the GIC or not, and it is not available for retirees, according to Karin Eddy, the GIC's director of human resources, who said the program is designed to reduce workplace stress.

    Optum will help with pet care, adoption and elder care, according to the GIC, among other assistance, and the company will promote its services to public employees, according to the GIC.

    "We're very excited about this program," Herman said. She said, "It feels like a good investment."

    Optum was the contractor the state brought on to fix the broken Health Connector website four years ago.

    The annual $1.6 million cost of the employee assistance program will be financed with 89 cents added to the per-employee monthly premium for fiscal 2019. Employees pay for a portion of their premium while their employers pick up the rest.

    So far in fiscal 2018, the GIC has spent $1.2 billion, which is $60.6 million or almost 5 percent below the amount budgeted. If there is a surplus at the end of June, the employee portion will remain in the employee share claims reserve and the state portion will return to the general fund, according to the GIC.


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    Baker will attend a lunch hosted by Vice President Mike Pence.

    Gov. Charlie Baker is in Washington, D.C. this weekend for the National Governors Association's winter meeting.

    Baker and First Lady Lauren Baker flew to Washington Thursday night and will return to Massachusetts on Monday.

    On Friday, Baker and his wife will attend a lunch hosted by Vice President Mike Pence at the Naval Observatory.

    Also Friday, Baker will attend a Council of Governors breakfast and briefing, followed by a Council of Governors meeting at the Pentagon. He will spend the evening at a National Governors Association reception at the Australian Embassy.

    The meeting has sessions scheduled for Saturday and Sunday on topics including international affairs, food and agriculture, opioid addiction, higher education, veterans and economic development.


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    Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh told Western Mass News the student did not show the gun and no threats were made.

     

    GREENFIELD -- Police are investigating the discovery of a pellet gun in a student's backpack at Greenfield Middle School last week.

    Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh told Western Mass News the student did not show the gun and no threats were made.

    Staff were somehow prompted to search the backpack and the gun was quickly secured.

    Western Mass News is television partner to The Republican and MassLive.com.


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    Charges against one of two teens arrested last week after allegedly calling in a threat against their high school to a Boston television news station have been dropped.

     

    Charges against one of two teens arrested last week after allegedly calling in a threat against their high school to a Boston television news station have been dropped.

    The two male freshmen, ages 14 and 15, were arrested for allegedly threatening to commit acts of violence at Rockland High School. Both were charged with making terroristic threats and disturbing a school assembly.

    During an investigation into the incident, authorities determined that charges against the 14-year-old will be dropped. Police found that the 15-year-old student used the 14-year-old's cell phone to call the Boston TV station and threaten to harm people at their school, Rockland Police Chief John R. Llewellyn said in a statement. The investigation found that the 14-year-old was unaware of the 15-year-old's intentions when the call was made.

    Llewellyn said the threat was made last Friday afternoon inside the Rockland High School cafeteria. The town's public schools temporarily sheltered in place while police found and arrested the two students.

    The teens' names are not being released due to their ages.


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    Two people have been injured in a shooting at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond.

     

    Two people have been injured in a shooting at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond.

    School spokesman Erin Cowser told the Associated Press that the shooting happened Friday at 3 a.m. near an assembly hall where sporting events are held. Cowser said it is unclear whether the two people injured were students at the university, but said it appears that students were involved.

    The two people were taken to a local hospital with non-life threatening injuries, the university said in a statement posted to Facebook. The University Police Department confirmed in the post that gunshots were fired overnight on the North Campus, but said there is no present threat to the university.

    Police are continuing to investigate the shooting, according to the university's statement.

    Southeastern Louisiana University is located about 56 miles northwest of New Orleans.


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    At 232,000 square feet the warehouse addition would on its own be the side of four football fields and larger than the CRRC MA railroad car factory.

    SPRINGFIELD -- Over the next 18 months, the family owned Big Y Foods Inc. will expand the distribution center at its Roosevelt Avenue headquarters with 232,000 square feet of additional space.

    Plans include an expansion in order to provide capacity for the next 20 years including 20 new supermarkets, Big Y said Friday.

    It's a $35-million to $40-million warehouse project that is expected to take 18 months and will result in 32 new jobs, according to a company news release. There are currently 92 employees working at the distribution center now and collectively they move 20 million cases of food a year, according to Big Y. 

    Big Y announced the expansion Friday and plans a news conference with Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno, Kennedy and Big Y President and COO Charles L. D'Amour and Vice President of Corporate Communications Claire D'Amour-Daley.

    Big Y Anticipates a total of 53 dock doors are needed to handle that growth.

    Big Y has a 181,000-square foot facility at the 34-acre site now. That building went up in 1995. The 232,000 additional square feet of space will bring the existing warehouse up to 425,000 square feet. That's the size of nearly 10 football fields.

    Big Y's plans include 152,000 square feet of additional dry product storage and 82,000 square feet of specialized refrigerated storage.

    Refrigerated storage for Big y is a complicated thing. It needs  a 34-degree cooler for fresh seafood from Boston piers, deli meats, salads, olives and cheeses; a 35 degree dry cold storage for fresh berries, apples, oranges and other fruit; wet humid storage for broccoli, kale and other leafy greens; 45 degrees for fresh flowers and 55 degrees for tomatoes.

    Big Y said all temperature and humidity controls are approved by the FDA and monitored 24/7 to ensure maximum product freshness.

    For bannanas, Big Y has specialized ripening rooms as they check each store's individual needs. Additional banana ripening rooms will be added to their
    existing ones to further meet the needs of their expansion.

    Big Y also plans improvements to its corporate headquarters on the site. 

    Big Y will build a  a new employee cafe and a test kitchen to develop and test new recipes, concepts, meals, dietary and new products before rolling them out to their consumers. The test kitchen can host food tastings and focus groups as well as serve as additional training for store teams each week. 

    City Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy said the city and Big Y are talking about tax abatement for the new project. But he said any tax increment financing plan would not include the existing facility.

    Big Y would continue to pay taxes on what is has now and would start to pay taxes on the addition in stages over time.

    Big Y is a multi-generational family business founded in 1936 by the late Paul and Gerald D'Amour with a single store in Chicopee. Brothers, the D'Amours named Big Y after a nearby intersection where two street formed a "Y".

    Today its one of the largest independently owned supermarket chains in New England with around 11,000 employees. 

    Big Y operates 80 locations in Massachusetts and Connecticut, a number that includes 70 supermarkets in which there are 39 pharmacies. Big Y also has Fresh Acres Market, Table & Vine Fine Wines and Liquors and five Big Y Express gas and convenience locations.

    D'Amour family has said Big Y could grow to 150 stores over the next two decades, an aggressive plant that might fuel the need for an expanded distribution center.

    And the chain has grown recently adding a store in Franklin, Massachusetts in 2012 and in 2016 eight former Hannaford locations in Kingston, Quincy, Norwell, Milford, Norwood, Peabody, Saugus, and Easton.

    Big Y opened Big Y Express gas stations in South Hadley, Lee, Pittsfield, Hadley, Longmeadow and Wilbraham starting in 2013.

    Big Y Foods Inc. plans to open a 60,000-square-foot supermarket at a former Walmart in Derby, Connecticut, sometime in 2019.

    Friday's announcement caps a string of good corporate news for Springfield.

    Earlier this month, MassMutual announced plans to spend $50 million on its Springfield and grow its workforce here by approximately 50 percent. The insurer will add 1,500 jobs there over the next four years, bringing the total number of employees in Springfield to approximately 4,500 by 2021.

    CRRC MA is getting ready to start making subway cars for the MBTA Red and Orange lines at its new factory in East Springfield.

    MGM Resorts International will open its $950-million MGM Springfield resort casino project on the South End in September.


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    The mall was closed Thursday due to a power issue.

    LANESBOROUOGH -- Berkshire Mall management said Friday they plan to reopen the ailing mall at 11 a.m. after not having electricity Thursday.

    The mall normally opens at 10 a.m.

    Berkshire Mall was closed Thursday citing "power issues" on its social media accounts.

    Lanesborough police said on their Facebook page that the Target and Regal Cinemas remained open. Solomon's Furniture also stayed open.

    This is the second time in the past two months the mall has shut down because it was without power. The other incident was Jan. 17.

    Like many malls, Berkshire Mall has lost anchor stores and subsequent customer traffic in recent years. Best Buy closed in 2015, Macy's closed in 2016 and JC Penney and Sears closed in 2017.

    Eversource spokeswoman Priscilla Ress said Thursday she couldn't shed much light on why the power went out. She said that the utility has sent Kohan a detailed account history, however. 

    "Due to customer privacy concerns, we're not at liberty to share that information however, the customer can provide it," Ress said. 

    Mall owner Mike Kohan said Thursday that the power bill was paid and that he was working to get power restored. 


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    Rogelio Lopez Jr., 51, was suspended from his job at Republic Waste Services last week after allegedly making phone calls threatening to harm other employees in the workplace.

    An employee of a South Yarmouth waste management company is facing a felony charge of making a terroristic threat after allegedly threatening "extreme violence" against his coworkers, Yarmouth police said Friday.

    Rogelio Lopez Jr., 51, was suspended from his job at Republic Waste Services last week after allegedly making phone calls threatening to harm other employees in the workplace. He has since been fired.

    On Thursday, Yarmouth police met with the company's management, heard details about the threats and obtained an arrest warrant for Lopez, a longtime employee with no criminal record or license to carry firearms, police said.

    "With the arrest warrant in hand, Yarmouth Police Detectives [Christopher] VanNess and Michael Wells, along with Proactive Anti-Crime Unit Officer Nicholas Ambrosini, travelled to the Wareham Police Department and subsequently teamed up with Wareham Police Department Police Officers to Lopez's residence in Wareham," Yarmouth police said. "At 7:00PM Lopez was found in the home and placed under arrest. Lopez was transported to Yarmouth Police Department Headquarters for booking."

    Lopez provided a statement to police, warned to stay away from the business and was released on his personal recognizance. He is scheduled for arraignment in Barnstable District Court today.

    Republic Waste Services has hired a police detail to provide security until further notice, police said.

    Police did not release details of the specific threats allegedly made by Lopez. MassLive has reached out to the department and the Cape and Islands District Attorney's Office for more information.


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    Harry Foster was arrested on charges of assault and battery on a person 60 or older and disorderly conduct.

    GREENFIELD -- Police arrested the owner of a downtown mattress store Thursday afternoon after he allegedly assaulted an elderly man during a dispute over a private parking space in back of the business.

    Police, summoned to the Mattress Outlet at 142 Main St. shortly after 3:30 p.m. for a report of an assault and battery, found the 74-year-old victim standing by the rear of his pickup truck and holding his hip, according to a post on the department's Facebook page.

    Parked in front of the pickup, blocking it in, was a vehicle belonging to the 50-year-old owner of the store, Harry Foster, of 194 Foster St., Gardner.

    "It was obvious to the officer that the victim was in pain," the post states.

    The victim told police he had unsuccessfully attempted to find a parking place near Greenfields Market.

    "The victim, thinking he would only be a couple minutes, parked in an open parking spot that was clearly marked by a private parking sign behind the Mattress Outlet," the post states.

    When he returned back to his truck, however, the victim found Foster's vehicle blocking him in.

    The victim went inside to talk with the owner.

    According to the post: "The owner appeared angry and asked the victim if he would read, pointing towards the sign. The victim offered to pay Mr. Foster for parking in his space, but Mr. Foster demanded $20, which was more than the victim was willing to pay. Mr. Foster refused to move his vehicle and reportedly told the victim 'You're going to have to wait for me because I waited for you' and returned into the store."

    The victim told police he returned to his truck and looked for way to move it. He saw that if he moved a small sign, he could drive over the curb to leave.

    As the victim moved the sign, however, Foster came out and moved his vehicle even closer to the pickup and shouted to the victim that he had no right to touch the sign.

    Foster then shoved the victim to the ground, causing "substantial injury" to him, according to the post.

    Foster then went inside to call police. He told the responding officer that he shoved the victim to the ground because he was trying to protect his property.

    Foster was arrested on charges of assault and battery on a person 60 or older and disorderly conduct.

    Foster was booked without incident and cooperated with police.


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    "I can't believe I even have to clarify this," a dean at WPI wrote on Twitter.

    Several Massachusetts colleges and universities are pledging not to rescind the acceptance of any high school student who may be punished for protesting gun violence.

    The call to end gun violence, and in its place create stricter and effective gun control, has resonated with students across the United States. Since students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida launched a "Never Again" movement following the devastating school shooting last week, students everywhere are heeding the call to plan localized protests. Several nationwide rallies are in the works, including the "Student Walkout Against Gun Violence" and the "National School Walkout" slated for March 14.

    'March for Our Lives' gun violence protest planned for Boston

    Colleges across the state -- including Worcester Polytechnic Institute, The University of Massachusetts Amherst, Smith College the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- shared public messages this week to express their support for students who may be disciplined for protesting gun violence during school hours.

    The announcements were motivated by news of a superintendent in Needville, a town southwest of Houston, Texas, who said students who protested during school hours would be suspended for three days, according to a Washington Post report.

    Needville Superintendent Curtis Rhodes issued a written warning that has since gone viral and sparked a discussion of students' first amendment rights. In the warning, Rhodes tells students and parents, "Life is all about choices and every choice has a consequence whether it be positive or negative. We will discipline no matter if it is one, fifty, or five hundred students involved."

    Typically, colleges can rescind student acceptances if the applicant shows a decline in character or academics. A suspension, say, or a failing grade will result in some colleges taking back an acceptance offer.

    Massachusetts schools wanted to make it clear that any student punished for participating in the nationwide movement to demand better gun control will not be impacted by poor conduct.

    "We always encourage students to undertake whatever course of action in life is most meaningful to, and consistent with, their own principles, and not prioritize how it might impact their college applications," Stu Schmill, MIT's dean of admissions and student financial services, wrote in a blog post published Thursday.


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    The one-day strike had been set to happen at 7 a.m. Tuesday.

    PITTSFIELD - Citing progress in negotiations for a new contract, the union representing some 800 registered nurses at Berkshire Medical Center on Friday announced it was withdrawing plans for a one-day strike at the hospital next week. 

    The Massachusetts Nurses Association issued a statement Friday morning that membership retain the right to issue another 10-day notification for a new one-day strike date if progress at the negotiation table does not continue.

    A major sticking point is staffing levels. The nurses union is seeking a contractual commitment from the hospital for more registered nurses.

    The one-day strike was planned to begin Tuesday at 7 a.m.

    "We are glad to have made enough progress to avert our one-day strike for now," said Alex Neary a registered nurse and co-chair of the bargaining committee. "We retain the right to re-issue our strike notice if the hospital does not agree to a contract that both protects and improves patient care and provides nurses fair health insurance."

    The statement from the union saw an offer from management not to reduce current nursing levels as a sign of progress. It would still like to see a commitment to increase staffing levels, and to improve patient care. 

    Although the strike is for now called off, the nurses are planning a public safety vigil on Monday from 5:30-6:30 p.m. in front of the hospital's main entrance at 725 North Street.


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    The one-day strike had been set to happen at 7 a.m. Tuesday.

    PITTSFIELD - Citing progress in negotiations for a new contract, the union representing some 800 registered nurses at Berkshire Medical Center on Friday announced it was withdrawing plan for a one-day strike at the hospital next week. 

    The Massachusetts Nurses Association issued a statement Friday morning that membership retain the right to issue another 10-day notification for a new one-day strike date if progress at the negotiation table does not continue.

    A major sticking point is staffing levels. The nurses union is seeking a contractual commitment from the hospital for more registered nurses.

    The one-day strike was planned to begin Tuesday at 7 a.m.

    "We are glad to have made enough progress to avert our one-day strike for now," said Alex Neary a registered nurse and co-chair of the bargaining committee. "We retain the right to re-issue our strike notice if the hospital does not agree to a contract that both protects and improves patient care and provides nurses fair health insurance."

    The statement from the union saw an offer from management not to reduce current nursing levels as a sign of progress. It would still like to see a commitment to increase staffing levels, and to improve patient care. 

    Although the strike is for now called off, the nurses are planning a public safety vigil on Monday from 5:30-6:30 p.m. in front of the hospital's main entrance at 725 North Street.


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    A former University of Massachusetts student and former football player is facing three charges of rape in connection with an alleged incident on campus in April 30, 2016.

    NORTHAMPTON - A former University of Massachusetts student and former football player is facing three charges of rape in connection with an alleged 2016 incident in Hadley.               

    Patrick K. Amara Jr., 22, denied charges in Hampshire Superior Court Thursday. A grand jury indicted him last month.

    According to a motion for arrest that was never issued because Amara appeared voluntarily, Amara allegedly raped a fellow UMass student on April 30, 2016.

    Amara transferred from the University of Pittsburgh after his sophomore year for the 2016 year at UMass, but had to sit out the 2016 season after transferring in January of 2016 because of college athletic rules.

    Afterwards, he was to have two years of playing eligibility but was expelled from UMass as a result of the allegations in July 2017, according to court documents.

    Spokesman Edward Blaguszewksi said that the Athletic Department reports that as of Nov. 4, 2016 Amara did not participate in any team training or practice activities.

    Hadley police first interviewed Amara in October of 2016 and the state issued a grand jury subpoena to UMass for records in 2017. UMass then notified Amara, according to the court arrest document.

    He was expelled from UMass as a result of the allegations in July 2017, according to the arrest warrant.

    The Athletic Department reports that as of Nov. 4, 2016 Amara did not participate in any team training or practice activities.

    According to court documents, he was originally from Lamsdowne, Pennsylvania but living in Georgia.

    He has been released with eight conditions including that he stay away from the entire UMass campus, have no contact with the alleged victim, will surrender all passports and report to probation weekly by phone.

    A pre-trial conference has been scheduled for June 29.


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    Police were summoned to a Beaudry street address at about 8:15 a.m., Ryan Walsh, a spokesman for the department said.

     

    SPRINGFIELD -- Police are investigating a stabbing that occurred Friday morning at a home in the Indian Orchard neighborhood.

    Police were summoned to a Beaudry street address at about 8:15 a.m., Ryan Walsh, a spokesman for the department said.

    Yellow crime scene tape can be seen cordoning off two vehicles in the driveway of 29 Beaudry St.

    Additional information, including the victim's condition, has not been released.

    This is a developing story. Additional information will be posted as soon as it is available.


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    With less than a month until St. Patrick's Day, Iron Duke and the Springfield St. Patrick's Day Parade Committee joined forces this week for a party to celebrate a new beer.

    LUDLOW- With less than a month until St. Patrick's Day, Iron Duke Brewing and the Springfield St. Patrick's Day Parade Committee joined forces this week for a party to celebrate a new beer.

    At the brewing company's current spot in The Ludlow Mills, a crowd gathered on Thursday to indulge in the newly released Murph's Irish Ale.

    "The parade committee is beyond excited to partner with a great local business like Iron Duke in Ludlow, which is part of the Springfield contingent" Springfield St. Patrick's Committee President Kerri Sullivan previously said.

    Iron Duke Brewing, embroiled in a years-long dispute with its landlord, the Westmass Development Corp., plans to buy a building in neighboring Wilbraham, move there and expand.

    Iron Duke is set to come back before the Wilbraham Zoning Board of Appeals March 29 at 5:30 p.m. in Town Hall.