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Sonoma County?s Superior Courts have parted ways with county government over the issue of employee and retiree medical coverage.

By agreeing to a year-long extension of a contract covering about 240 court employees and another 50 retirees, the Superior Court indicated it would not go along with changes to medical coverage being implemented for county employees.

County administrators, backed by the current Board of Supervisors, have been pushing for changes in medical coverage that base county contributions to monthly premiums on a fixed rate rather than a percentage of costs. The changes have been opposed by the unions representing county employees and by the retirees organization because many will end up paying a larger share of their monthly premiums under a fixed monthly county contribution of $500.

Denise Gordon, Sonoma County Courts executive officer, said she recently notified county administrators that the court system is ending its long-time practice of buying health benefits from the county?s self-insurance program.

Since employees of the Superior Courts were separated from the county payrolls in 2001 as a part of a shift to state supervision, the court reporters, clerks and legal processors have ?piggy-backed? on the county?s system for purchasing medical, dental and vision benefits for their own 4,300 employees.

However, Gordon said ?that worked for us for a long time, but the county?s changes were not something that would work for us because we did not have a seat at the table.?

Over the last year, county labor negotiators pursued proposals with the Service Employees International Union and with two law enforcement unions that shift an increasingly larger share of future medical premiums on employees. County officials have maintained that pruning of commitments to fund future health benefits is necessary to curb a $15 million annual deficit in paying for those medical premiums.

Gordon declined to criticize the county?s approach, saying ?that is not for me to comment on their system.?

Union officials, however, said they welcomed the agreement with the court system because it demonstrated an alternative to the county?s bargaining positions with unions on medical benefits.

?We are pleased that the court has taken its promise to pay retire health benefits seriously,? said Carolyn Lopez, an organizer for Service Employees International Union. ?If the court ever considered taking a page from the county?s book and reneging on their obligation to retirees, they never said so at the (bargaining) table.

Negotiations between court administrators and the union began October and concluded in mid-November. The agreement adds a year to a 2-year contract that was scheduled to end in September 2009.

Gordon said contract extension gives the court administration time to seek bids for medical benefits through a shared risk pool operated by the California State Association of Counties. When bids on health premium rates come in, she said court administrators will ?meet and confer? with union representatives to discuss cost sharing.

Currently, the court system pays 86 percent of an employee?s medical premiums, similar to what the county had been contributing. Changes for the county?s union, non-union employees and retirees take effect in May.

Gordon said she anticipated employees would have choices similar to their current ones of Kaiser Permanente, a commercial insurer offering a fee-for-service plan and an HMO plan.

The contract covers medical plans for all court employees except the Superior Court judges and commissioners, whose coverage is set by the state.