LINCOLN< NE – When wearing the badge, police officers can trade bullets with bank robbers or redline their cruisers in pursuit of the getaway car. But if they test their skills in a mixed martial arts cage or atop an ATV while off duty, their employers increasingly don't want to provide their health insurance. That's at the heart of a dispute between the City of Scottsbluff and the local police union that ended Friday in the Nebraska Supreme Court. The high court released a split opinion that said cities must let union members collectively bargain over the sorts of risky, off-duty activities that can be excluded by a health insurance plan. "It is prudent public policy for the city to control insurance costs," the majority opinion stated. "Employees certainly have an interest in that as well. But employees also have an interest in enjoying the full range of hobbies and recreational activities that any citizen is entitled to pursue, including many that might involve 'risk-taking,' such as skiing, water sports or martial arts." While it's not unusual for municipal health insurance policies to exclude coverage for hazardous hobbies such as skydiving and bungee jumping, in 2009 Scottsbluff expanded the list of activities that it wouldn't cover. The new list excluded things like ultimate fighting, riding all-terrain vehicles and traveling to countries under an advisory warning. The city announced the change after it had negotiated a labor contract with its police union, which has 33 members. Union members, including several who practiced mixed martial arts, sought to renegotiate, but the city refused. The police union then refused to sign the contract after it was approved by the city council. Union members were willing to concede a ban on ultimate fighting in exchange for other activities on the list, said John Corrigan, an Omaha lawyer who represented the police union. For example, they argued it was unfair to exclude all-terrain vehicle riding and horseback riding, activities that are common in rural areas and safe when done properly. The union's lawyer researched benefit packages for police in cities comparable to Scottsbluff, a community of 15,000 in far western Nebraska. None had hazardous activity exclusions as broad as Scottsbluff's, Corrigan said. "If it isn't negotiated, they can exclude almost anything they want to the point that the coverage is worthless," he said. The case went before the Commission of Industrial Relations, which said the exclusions should have been negotiated. The commission also found that the police union did not violate the law by refusing to sign the contract. The city appealed to the Supreme Court. Six of the seven high court judges sided with police on the collective bargaining issue. They said health insurance is such a fundamental part of an employee's compensation that substantial coverage changes aren't permitted without negotiations. Chief Justice Mike Heavican dissented, arguing that the scope of health care coverage could be changed unilaterally by the city because the city continued to offer insurance. He argued requiring employers to negotiate the details of coverage would be too complex and unmanageable. In the roughly two years that the case has been litigated, the city has made additional changes to the health care plan that required police officers to pay more for health insurance. Those increased fees were not agreed to under collective bargaining and, the court ruled, the city must refund any higher fees paid by officers since 2009. But the majority court sided with the city over the union's refusal to sign the contract. Under the Nebraska Industrial Relations Act, the union was required to sign because it had previously ratified the contract. The high court returned the case to the Commission of Industrial Relations to determine financial losses to the city because of the union's refusal to sign the contract. From The Omaha World-Herald.
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