The Winchester Board of Selectmen voted last week to raise retiree health insurance to as much as 50 percent of premium costs starting in July, setting up a potential showdown on Monday at the annual spring Town Meeting.
An article on the warrant seeks to have selectmen postpone the increase. A committee would be appointed to study the alternatives and to report back to Town Meeting next fall.
“We’ll do the best we can to make our case,” said Jan Dolan, 79, a retired teacher at Winchester High School, who formed the Winchester Retirees Committee to mobilize retirees to oppose the increase.
“We’re still going to fight,” said John Frongillo, president of the Winchester firefighters’ union, who represented retired firefighters on the committee. “[The selectmen] don’t have to do this.”
Town Meeting is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the Winchester High School auditorium.
By a 3-1 vote, selectmen voted on April 22 to raise the health insurance contribution rates for the town’s 512 retired workers, who now pay 10 percent to 50 percent of the premium cost, depending on the type of plan and date of retirement.
Under the new plan, premiums for individuals who retired before 2004 and who are not eligible for Medicare would pay 30 percent of their premiums, an increase to $153 from $102 starting in July; premiums would rise to $204 in January 2016.
The monthly premium for a family plan would increase from $534 to $543 in July, and to $552 in 2016, according to committee estimates.
Later retirees will have to pay 50 percent as of Jan. 1.
“When I retired, I based my budget on 33 percent,” said Bernadette Wilkinson, 62, a former teacher. “Now, seven years later, I’m expected to pay 50 percent. . . . I’m going to be paying $12,000 a year for health care. My husband is unemployed. It’s going to have tremendous impact.”
A $55,000 mitigation fund would be set up for at least three years to help retirees who cannot afford the increases.
Selectmen said the increases are necessary to help the town solve a projected 30-year liability for retiree health insurance costs estimated in the tens of millions of dollars.
“It’s a big vote,” said Jennifer Wilson, the board chairwoman, reading from prepared remarks at the April 22 meeting. “We recognize there is no ideal or magical solution to this.”
Selectman Steve Powers — who was elected April 1 — asked the board to delay voting until after Town Meeting. He also noted a bill pending in the state Legislature that could alter retiree benefits statewide.
“This seems to be a plan that puts [the liability] on the backs of seniors,” said Powers, who was not on the board when the plan was drafted. “We have a Town Meeting vote coming up. We have [state legislation]. The whole thing might not be possible to do. I think the board should delay the vote.”
Powers later offered an amendment to set the premiums at 25 percent for people who retired before 2004, which was defeated, 3-1. The increase would have been phased in over a two-year period.
“I think 70-30 was a good rate to achieve for pre-2004s,” said Wilson. “It happens to be consistent with what I believe is the average in Massachusetts.”
Wilson did not cite an average. But a survey of 236 cities and towns conducted last year by the Massachusetts Municipal Association found that communities contribute an average of 66 percent of the health care costs for retirees not yet eligible for Medicare, the federal health insurance program for people age 65 and over. The average contribution for those eligible for Medicare is 63 percent, according to the association.
Winchester plans to offer in January a new lower-cost HMO plan for seniors who do not qualify for Medicare. In July, a “plus one” plan — which a couple could purchase instead of a more costly family plan — will be available, officials said.
Still, Winchester retirees say their new rates will cause financial hardship, particularly for the town’s oldest workers. Many retired before 1986, the year public employees were first eligible to take part in Medicare.
“To tell these elderly men and women to come and beg for help from the town where they once held proud positions is the height of insensitivity and disdain,” said Kay Tiffany, 78, a retired Winchester High guidance counselor.
The retirees committee had hoped the selectmen would have kept people who retired before 2004 at their current rates. “The committee regrets that it was not able to convince the [selectmen] to grandfather premiums for those who are not Medicare-eligible,” Dolan said.
Selectmen said the increase is necessary to help the town resolve its unfunded liability for retiree health care.
A 2011 study projected a $93 million liability. But a study completed last October put the cost at $53 million. The difference accounts for changes in retiree health care — such as increased copayments — and other efforts to reduce the liability, according to Town Manager Richard Howard.
Increasing the amount retirees pay for health insurance is just one step toward paying down the liability, Howard said.
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