Wayne County retirees fear health care changes
At 65 and a retired postal worker, Freida Webster is thinking of going back to work.
Not because she’s restless or bored. She said it’s because Wayne County has cut her husband’s health insurance that covers both of them in its effort to address a financial emergency.
The Detroit couple is living on a fixed income, she said, and her husband requires regular dialysis.
“When you have to go back to work just to cover your health care, something is wrong with the system,” she said. “Something just isn’t right.”
The financially strapped county will transfer some of its retirees from employer-paid group health care to a system by which they’ll get a monthly stipend to buy a plan on the federal Health Insurance Marketplace. They can also choose a plan through the insurance company the county has hired to manage the day-to-day administration of the stipend program, Charlotte, N.C.-based AmWINS Group Inc.
The current health care plan ends Nov. 30 and the new one takes effect Dec. 1. Officials estimate about 4,000 retirees are eligible.
Some retired workers like Freida’s husband, Harvest Webster, 70, are upset about the change and worried.
“It’s not the same as it was before,” said Harvest Webster, who was a supervisor at the county’s juvenile detention facility for 19 years before retiring in 1996. “We’re going to get less money from the county and our health care is going to cost us more out-of-pocket.”
James Canning, a county spokesman, said the county respects its retirees and is very grateful for their years of service.
“We understand change is never easy,” he said. “But moving from employer-paid health care to a stipend program was necessary to improve the long-term financial health of the county. We really appreciate our retirees’ understanding as we move through this process.”
Wayne County continues to grapple with a recurring budgetary shortfall that stems from a $100 million annual drop in property tax revenue since 2008. County officials have been able to whittle nearly $30 million from a $52 million structural deficit.
On top of that, the county’s pension system is underfunded by $910.5 million, according to the most recent actuarial report. The county takes about $20 million annually from its general fund to bolster the system.
In July, state officials declared a financial emergency in Wayne County. To address the problem, the county and the state entered into a consent agreement, which gives Wayne County Executive Warren Evans some powers usually wielded only by emergency managers.
As part of the effort to erase the county’s deficit, Evans announced in April a plan to cut $230 million from the budget over four years. It called for cutting health care for employees, eliminating health care for future retirees and restructuring the pension system.
Cutting health care for current retirees also was part of the plan. To that end, county officials switched an employer-paid group health care plan for retirees to giving them a monthly stipend.
To help retirees navigate the changes, the county hosted 13 informational meetings for retirees at sites across Metro Detroit in recent weeks. Canning said about 1,600 attended the meetings.
It also has set up an 800-number and a website at http://waynecounty.amwins.com/ to answer retirees’ questions about their health care benefits.
“We gave serious consideration and took a lot of time to plan how to make the transition for retirees as easy as possible,” Canning said. “There’s still more to be done and the hotline and web portal are still available. As retirees decide which plan to choose, we’re going to continue to be there to support them in the effort.”
County employees who retired before 2007 and are eligible for Medicare will get a $130 monthly stipend for themselves and one for eligible spouses.
Employees who retired before 2007 and aren’t Medicare eligible will get a monthly stipend based on their household income. For example, a retiree with a spouse or single dependent and who earns less than $35,000 a year, will get a $150 monthly stipend. A retiree with a spouse who earns between $35,000 and $65,000 will get $300 a month.
Canning said retirees may buy insurance through a broker or an independent agent, or directly from an insurance carrier. They also can obtain coverage through a spouse’s employer, he said.
Before the change, most retirees pay a minimal amount out of their own pockets for health care. For example, most paid about $90 per month for coverage for themselves, two people or a family with Blue Cross or Health Alliance Plan under last year’s benefits structure, according to the county. Retirees in the supervisory unit paid about $44 a month for single coverage, $104 for two people and $122 for a family.
Retirees also paid a yearly deductible of $500 for themselves and $1,000 for a family. Co-pays for doctor’s visits ranged from $30 to 20 percent for general services from in-network health care providers.
The change in health insurance is expected to save the county nearly $22 million in the 2015-16 fiscal year alone, according to officials.
Health care isn’t the only thing the county changed for retirees as part of its cost-cutting campaign.
In June, it eliminated an extra annual payment to retirees called the “13th check.”
The county had issued the payment to retirees since 1986 to reduce its underfunded pension liability. The average payment last year was about $180. The money came from the Inflation Equity Fund, which allowed the county retirement board to grant an additional retirement check when the system was over-funded.
However, retirees were able to get at least a minor victory.
In May, a Wayne County Circuit Court ruled the county must pay $49 million into the Inflation Equity Fund. The county’s retirement system sued the county after it pulled $32 million from the fund in 2010 to cover its annual pension contribution. The additional $17 million covers lost earnings.
Joe Gietzen said retirees like him aren’t thrilled about the changes, but are going to have to do the best they can to live with them. Gietzen said he retired in 1990 after 35 years with the county, working for the board of auditors, the management and budget department and the data processing department.
“I had been getting my insurance at basically no cost to me and now I’m going to have to pay for it,” said Gietzen, 85, from Macomb Township. “Of course I’m worried, but I guess I just have to live with it like everybody else.”
Health care changes for Wayne retirees
Effective Dec. 1, the county will transfer about 4,000 retirees from employer-paid group health insurance to a monthly-stipend system.
County employees who retired before 2007 and are Medicare-eligible will get a monthly $130 stipend for themselves and one for spouses, if eligible.
Employees who retired before 2007 and aren’t Medicare-eligible will get a monthly stipend based on their household income. Here’s a breakdown of the stipends for retirees who aren’t Medicare-eligible:
■$100 for income less than $30,000
■$200 for income of $30,000-$45,000
■$400 for income $45,000-plus
Retiree and spouse or one dependent
■$150 for income less than $35,000
■$300 for income of $35,000-$65,000
■$750 for income of $65,000-plus
■$150 for income less than $40,000
■$300 for income of $40,000-$55,000
■$400 for income of $55,000-$70,000
■$800 for income of $70,000-plus
Source: Wayne County