Police and firefighters object to change in medical coverage

SARASOTA, FL – Retired police and firefighters plan to keep fighting changes that the city has made to their health care plans, even though Sarasota officials insist they aren’t budging.

Dozens of retirees turned out at City Hall two weeks ago to protest changes to their health plan that ask them to pay more for insurance in some cases, and their grievances are likely to be an issue again at today’s City Commisson meeting.

The retirees know, however, that there is little they can do to appeal the city’s decisions. Stacie Mason, Sarasota’s director of human resources, said she is standing by the changes.

It was on orders from the City Commission, she said, that her office hired consultants who designed the new plans to bring down an $81 million unfunded liability in the city’s retiree benefits obligations. Meanwhile, she said, some retirees have not done enough to help the city save money on health care.

Her office is trying to get some retirees off of the city’s health care plans and into other coverage, possibly through Medicare or the Affordable Care Act. If everything works as hoped, she said, the unfunded liability could be down to $15 million after four years.

The city’s obligation to pay for retirees’ health and dental insurance has become a rare artifact from the past.

City employees hired after 1993 pay 100 percent of their medical after retirement, as is common in the private sector.

If police and fire retirees have become accustomed to having more say in these matters, they will find things are different now.

“I don’t have a discussion about premiums with retirees,” Mason said. “We don’t negotiate.”

Changes in the city’s post-employment benefits were foreshadowed this summer, when the City Commission passed a new budget and covered a multi-million-dollar shortfall by decreasing payments into a benefit fund.

City commissioners voted unanimously for the health plan changes, and remained largely silent in the face of complaints from police and fire retirees.

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo was the only commissioner who said he regretted his vote. He is scheduled to bring the issue back up for discussion at today’s meeting.

Single retirees hired before 1993 will still have most or all of their health care covered by the city, and some will even pay less in the future. About three-quarters of the affected retirees are in that group. The big increases are in family plans, where the city is dramatically scaling back the amount it contributes to cover spouses and children of retirees.

“It doesn’t mean we don’t honor what they did for the city,” Mason said. But the city’s debt is fundamentally to the employee, she said, and not the rest of the family.

That is one example of a growing disconnect between some retirees’ expectations and the thinking at City Hall.

The feeling among some retirees that they ought to have been consulted about the changes first is another. For much of their careers, the police and fire employees were represented by unions that negotiated these matters. Now they are not.

Al Woodle, a retired SPD police captain who has sat on a city focus group on employee benefits, said he and other retirees understand that. They also understand the city’s need to balance its books. And he conceded that there are simple measures that retirees could take to reduce health care costs.

A health center that the city founded three years ago, for example, offers free medical appointments and mail-order prescription drugs to active employees and retirees. It could save the city hundreds of thousands in prescription drugs, but only about a third of retirees in the area use it.

“There has been a little bit of difficulty getting some retirees to go,” Woodle said. “We have been trying to do a better job of that.”

At the same time, he said, the retirees still want a seat at the table when decisions are made. In particular, he objected to Mason’s idea of changing the benefits focus group’s mission from developing long-term solutions to wellness education. Taken together with everything else, Woodle said, it feels like something is being taken away.

“It’s a real major shift from our perspective,” Woodle said. “We were always told, you don’t make a lot in money, but you’re going to be taken care of in the long run. Now, they’re starting to renege on it.”

Woodle said he is doing OK. He retired on an $80,000 pension and has a house in the country. But not everyone did as well. Some retirees are living on much smaller pensions, closer to $19,000, and will have a harder time paying any increases in medical costs.

For retirees who make less, and might be priced out of the city health plans, the city offers stipends to help pay for insurance through the Affordable Care Act or Medicare.

Retirees can leave their plan to shop around and come back if they need to. Other benefits, like the city’s “wellness dollars,” given as rewards for getting checkups and blood pressure exams, will be harder to earn in some cases.

Jan Thornburg, a spokeswoman for the city, said the new way of doing things might be more difficult, but city leaders were committed to reducing costs.

“This has been really easy and it’s been really comfortable for people” for a long time, she said. “We’ve got to make some changes.”