A bill that would drastically change post-retirement health insurance benefits for municipal employees is making its way through the state house and has caused a small stir among Island town employees.
Proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick, the bill was discussed last Friday at a meeting with Island town employees and state Sen. Dan Wolf and Rep. Tim Madden. More than 30 people turned out at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven to voice their concern and opposition to the bill, known as H59. Included in the bill is an emergency preamble that changes retirement health insurance benefits for current and all future town employees effective July 1.
Both Mr. Wolf and Mr. Madden said they were strongly opposed to the measure.
“We should try and kill the whole thing,” Mr. Wolf said. “This is absurd; it’s outrageous and we should not even entertain it.”
Mr. Wolf called the bill “an attack on retirement.”
The bill is before the Joint Committee on Public Service. No hearing has been scheduled yet. Mr. Wolf sits on the committee and said if the bill makes it through, it could be a matter of days before the state legislature takes a full vote on the bill. The governor filed the bill in February.
The legislation comes at the behest of the state’s special commission to study other post employment benefits, which filed a report in late 2012 recommending the reforms.
Under the current post-retirement health insurance system, town employees are eligible to qualify for up to 80 per cent of premium contributions after 10 years of service. The proposed bill instead would require employees to work at least 20 years in order to qualify for 50 per cent of premium contributions. Employees would not qualify for the current maximum contribution of 80 per cent until 30 years of service. The recommended changes also include increasing the minimum age of eligibility by five years.
The bill would not affect those who are already retired or will retire before July 1, 2013, certain other employees nearing retirement, as well as those who receive eligibility pensions.
Chilmark Free Public Library director Ebba Hierta said she is eligible for retirement in June, and if the bill is approved, she will have to choose in a matter of days whether to retire in order to continue to receive current health insurance benefits.
“We took these jobs with these promises and I think this is thievery,” she said. “It’s plain and simple, [the state] is stealing from benefits that we’ve been promised.”
Edgartown librarian Deborah MacInnis called the change “a drastic breach of promise.”
“We get extra benefits because we’re getting paid less than we would in the private sector . . . and now you’re going to take that away too,” she said. “Why is anyone going to want to work in the public sector?”
West Tisbury town accountant Bruce Stone said towns have a difficult time hiring qualified people and a consequence of the reform may be that towns end up “with less qualified people for jobs.”
Dukes County treasurer Noreen Flanders said the most pressing issue was the emergency preamble portion of the legislation.
“That to me is what has to go immediately. You have to give people time, the legislature time and the people who are affected enough time for the conversation to say how can we make this work,” she said. “The emergency preamble is awful. That’s the worst.”
Mr. Madden urged the group to reach out to members of the Joint Committee on Public Service and voice their opinion in numbers.
“I am not overly optimistic that nothing will happen, but I’m fairly optimistic what the governor has proposed is quite a reach,” Mr. Madden said. “My guess is if a bill like this moves out of committee, it will be moving [to the floor for a full vote] very, very quickly.”
“The most important thing this group can do is reach out to counterparts across the commonwealth.”