New York City's government workers were freeloading off taxpayers to the tune of nearly $1 billion a year by contributing little or nothing toward their health insurance coverage, according to a study quoted Tuesday by the New York Post.

The city's health care giveaway -- amid the worst economic downturn in half a century -- does not even conform to New York state government policy, according to analysis by the Rockefeller Institute of Government.

State government workers and retirees must pay 10 percent of the cost of individual premiums and 25 percent of premiums for family health coverage.

If city workers were required to pay what state workers do, New York taxpayers would realize $923 million in savings annually, the report said.

Other local governments around the state, combined, would save $838 million a year if their workers shared in the cost of their health insurance.

The researchers said cash-strapped Albany, which must close a projected $9 billion deficit next year, can no longer afford to subsidize escalating public employee health costs.

"It's hard to justify the disparity," said Rockefeller fellow Carol O'Cleireacain, a former city budget director and labor union economist.

Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch, who requested the study, said that "continuing business as usual is not sustainable."

The study recommended approval of a state law requiring that all local government workers -- teachers, firefighters and police -- contribute the same amount that state workers pay toward their health premiums.

But labor leader Harry Nespoli shot back, "This is nothing but a ploy to set back the unions."

Nespoli, chairman of New York's Municipal Labor Council and head of the sanitation workers union, said many city workers were already scraping to get by. "They want us to pay more. It's a difficult thing to do. When taxes go up, we get taxed," he said.

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