Massages for Erie County employees cost taxpayers $1.3 million over the past four years.
A new report by the county Comptroller’s Office found government worker rubdowns have been costing the county between $291,000 and $367,000 a year since at least 2009, the last year for which figures were easily attainable.
The county also spent $77,000 to cover acupuncture services for employees over the last four years, according to the report. The figures do not include similar services provided to employees, family members and retirees with Erie Community College, Erie County Medical Center or the Erie County Water Authority.
“I think taxpayers should be outraged,” Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw said. “There may be very few instances where this could be determined to be a medical necessity, but for the most part, this is a luxury item that taxpayers can no longer afford. It almost rivals the cosmetic surgery benefit offered for Buffalo Public School employees.”
A memo from the county’s Audit and Control Division stated that massage and acupuncture services have been provided as part of employee health insurance packages for many years. In 2003, they were folded into the benefits packages offered to all employees under single insurer BlueCross BlueShield.
Employees, family members and retirees who participate in the insurer’s middle- and high-level plans are entitled to 12 massages and six acupuncture sessions per year, the report states. Both are covered benefits that require employees to pay only $8 or $10 out of pocket.
Mychajliw said he found out about the perks when he first met with county benefit representatives prior to taking office in January.
“I was handed a sheet, and this individual said, ‘Here’s all your massage therapists, and here are your acupuncturists,’ ” Mychajliw recalled. “I nearly fell out of my chair.”
After sitting through recent hearings where cultural institutions and libraries have come before the County Legislature “practically begging for money,” he said, shelling out county money for health perks like these seem grossly unfair. The annual cost savings could also be used to restore sheriff’s road patrol deputies and 911 dispatchers, he said.
“I would hope unions would be open to negotiating this,” he said.
The county has been trying to eliminate these covered benefits for employees, according to the audit memo. Starting this year, the new hires with the Corrections unit of the county’s Civil Service Employees Association will no longer receive acupuncture and massage benefits.
Mychajliw said that although he was interested in researching the cost of the massage and acupuncture benefits since his first day in office, he was still surprised when he saw the figures last week.
“I never thought it was that high. Never,” he said. “My jaw dropped when I saw the numbers. That’s when our audit team made the decision that we need to go deeper.”
County auditors will now undertake a lengthier and more comprehensive audit on the overall cost of medical insurance provided to employees and retirees, and how those costs and benefits compare with those in the private sector, Mychajliw said. The audit also will consider the future ramifications of the federal Affordable Care Act.