Despite vehement opposition from a state retirees’ group, a bill that would add retirees to committees that help determine health care options overwhelmingly passed the Senate Wednesday, just moments after it had cleared a committee hearing.
Voting against it were three Republican senators.
Senate Bill 29, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, would give retirees a voice by putting one retiree with full voting rights on the State Employee Benefits Committee that oversees retiree healthcare plans.
It also would create the Healthcare Benefits Advisory Subcommittee of the State Employee Benefits Committee, with three state retirees and four members of the General Assembly and give that committee the power to hold public meetings and make recommendations about retiree health plans, with a goal of doing that by May 1.
Townsend said in both the hearing and the Senate that he didn’t think the May 1 deadline was feasible, but it was a goal.
An amendment added to the bill would require members of the state committee to attend its meetings themselves, instead of sending a representative, but would allow members to continue sending representatives to subcommittee hearings.
The state’s move last year to switch all 30,000 retirees to a Medicare Advantage plan instead of continuing their current specially tailored plan galvanized retiree opposition. The retirees accused the state of failing to live up to guarantees of health care and of hiding the fact that the plan was being changed.
The state argued that it had not been done secretly, but in open meetings that various officials attended, and that it was necessary to stabilize health care expenses in order to be able to continue to provide high quality care for future retirees.
After a group of retirees led by retired state Rep. John Kowalko formed RiseDelaware and sued the state.
Superior Court Judge Calvin Scott sided with them, saying that the state had promised that health benefits would not change, but the Medicare Advantage plan included requirements for preauthorization and demanded retirees use in-network doctors, big changes.
He ordered the state to stop their plans. The state later allowed retirees to stay on their current plan.
Townsend said there is no process in place to confirm what happens next, and his bill would help solve that problem.
Retirees oppose bill
No, it won’t, Kowalko testified in the Senate Executive Committee hearing.
Kowalko said RiseDelaware is worried that the bill is being fast-tracked and that it was only designed to make the General Assembly feel like it was doing something.
“Retirees represented by RiseDelaware have concluded that this piece of legislation appears to be an attempt by the General Assembly leadership and this administration to avoid or ignore their responsibility and obligation to retirees,” Kowalko said.
Faith Rentz of the Delaware Department of Human Resources said that her office does support SB29, but it will come with costs, even though the bill says there will be none.
Rentz said that will include $100,000 for salary and benefits for someone to organize and oversee the subcommittee, and likely another $150,000 for consulting and actuarial advice. In addition, she said, the Department of Justice is likely to ask for money because it will be expected to provide advice.
Former Sen. Karen Peterson, who has been leading the charge with Kowalko, said Townsend’s bill is merely moving around the deck chairs on the Titanic.
“Senate Bill 29 will do absolutely nothing to resolve the retiree health care issue because the subcommittee created by this bill is loaded with the people who are hell bent on shoving Medicare Advantage down our throats,” she said. “We already know what the recommendation is going to be. But this way you can all pat yourselves on the back.”
She said a vote for the bill was a vote against retirees, especially those over 65 who are on Medicare.
“If you want to do something constructive, then grandfather us into a Medicare supplement plan. People who are already in the plan stay there. New people get the new plan,” she said. “That’s how it’s always been handled and should continue to be handled.”
Mary Graham said there are more options to explore than just shifting everyone to a Highmark Medicare Advantage plan, and the state should consider them.
Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, said during the committee hearing that the bill is not an end-all, be-all solution.
“But this is a step,” he said. “It’s a very important step so that we as a body know what we need to do to make healthcare for retirees work.”
His mother is a state retiree and he said she had a lot of questions.
“I think this bill gives us the tools that we’re going to need to make an informed decision for all of you,” he told the people who testified. “Not just the ones that are here now, not just the retirees, the current retiree. Let’s take a look at a long-term, sustainable solution to retiree health care.”
During the Senate debate, Sen. Eric Buckson, R-Dover, asked for the Senate to table the bill to allow more comment.
So many people wanted to comment during the committee hearing that they were limited to one minute each.
“Many folks who showed up today and had value in their conversation and deserve the opportunity to speak in committee,” said Buckson, who is serving his first term in the Senate.
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Townsend pointed out that the bill was already in play and needed to be voted on and Senate rules didn’t allow it to just be tabled.
Sen. Bryant Richardson, R-Seaford, said testimony during the committee hearing did give him pause.
“I did hear at the executive committee meeting a lot of concern about the timing of this and that they do not trust the process right now,” Richardson said.
Even so, he planned to vote for the bill “even though I don’t think it really goes far enough” simply to have more voices at the table.
The bill passed 17 to 3, with one senator absent. Voting against the bill were Buckson, Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel; and Sen David Wilson, R-Lincoln.
The bill now goes to the House, where it will be heard in committee before heading to the full body.
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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