ATHENS — Town officials proposed changes to the health insurance plan for former town employees to shift the burden from taxpayers to the retirees.
The proposed changes to their health care plan were discussed at length Monday during a special town board meeting devoted to 2019’s proposed $2,351,000 budget.
Seven retirees and four spouses have insurance through the town, Athens Town Supervisor Robert Butler Jr. said, adding employees who have a single policy would have to pay $1,100 for themselves and their spouse.
Some retirees are covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and pay $539 a month, per policy — or $1,078 with a spouse, Butler said. Three retirees switching from the existing plan to United Healthcare will save between $400-$500 a month in fees, ultimately saving the town $15,000.
The town will pick up the full cost of a retiree and his or her spouse switching their coverage to United at an approximate cost of $650.
“In no way are we cutting the free healthcare coverage promise that was made years ago — they are getting something different, but it’s still free,” Butler said. “They get a lot more than most people get. They still get their Medicare reimbursement.”
Resident Jane Kerr, wife of retired town justice Richard Kerr, asked the board to explain the proposed retiree plan coverage, because rumors have circulated about it, she said. “I would like a member of the board to explain exactly what the retirees are being offered,” she said. “I have been an advocate of plan L [under Medicare supplemental insurance] for the retirees from day one.”
The changes in insurance Butler proposed include retirees receiving a single policy, where they would contribute to $38 a month. To cover a spouse, a retiree would be required to pay $38 a month for themselves and $538 for their spouse, Butler said during the meeting, adding retiree health insurance plans have, at times, increased to as much as $340 a month since the employee retired.
“I’m not looking to cut insurance for anybody or not take care of anybody, I’m looking to try to cut some costs and save some money,” Butler said. “I don’t think, personally, that the public should have to keep picking up all the extra expense for this insurance because we’re not picking it up for our current employees.”
Kerr commended the board for its efforts because in the business world, insurance plans change every two to three years because premiums go up on old plans, she said.
“It’s sad that more districts — like school districts and unions — don’t do the same thing,” she said. “They’re paying astronomical premiums like $1,700 a month when they could have coverage for a lot less than that.”
About 0.9 percent of the budget is earmarked for retirees’ insurance plan, Kerr said, adding other items in the budget could push it over the mandated 2 percent tax cap.
“You’re singling out, again, the retirees,” she said.
The town is not singling out retirees, Butler said, as many items in the budget have received cuts. An $18,000 increase for insurance in the budget would push it over the tax cap, he said. “This isn’t the only place that’s been cut, I can promise you that,” Butler added. “Our expenditures have gone up, our revenue has gone down and in the past five years, we’ve been able to operate of a deficit at around $42,000 a year.”
The retirees fulfilled their obligations to the town and the proposed plan will put a strain on them financially, Councilwoman Mary Brandow said. “I just think it’s something unjust to do to them,” she said. “It may seem like a little, but it is a strain on them.”
To have her spouse covered under her health insurance, Brandow, a retiree, would have to pay for her husband’s entire health care plan, which would cost the entire retirement check she receives, she said Tuesday.
“It’s something I can’t do — it’s a hardship,” Brandow said. “I never thought I would face it.”
In the past, town employees had to work for the town for 10 years to get insurance — now they have to work 25 years to receive it, Brandow said.
“It’s getting very costly,” she said. “That’s why they [the previous town board] amended it.”
Brandow expects the proposed plan to pass, but cannot vote on it because she is a retiree, she said, adding she understands the frustrations retirees have about the change.
“You’re talking about people that are in their 70s and 80s,” Brandow said. “They live on fixed incomes. They’re just a little upset because they fulfilled their requirements and it’s being changed.”
Councilman Tony Paluch offered to cut his salary — which is proposed in next year’s budget to be $4,300 — in order to help offset the health insurance cost.
Paluch can surrender his check, but it is a temporary solution to an ongoing problem, Butler said after the meeting.
“That’s fine, but the next person that comes in will receive the pay and that problem comes back and it’s even bigger than before,” the supervisor said.
Residents often tell Butler the town has plenty of money to spend on projects, but the town does not have as many funds as expected, he said, adding money can’t be spent on a whim.
“It’s not our job to spend the money because we have it — we have to have a plan,” the supervisor said. “We need to be reasonable and responsible. I think we are.”
The public hearing on the proposed remains open through Monday. The town board is expected to vote on the 2019 spending plan at 7 p.m. Monday at town hall.
To reach reporter Daniel Zuckerman email email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @DZuckerman_CGM.