Legislators: We will decide any medical insurance switch for thousands of retirees
Rockland County officials are sparring over a plan to switch insurance carries for its retirees.
NEW CITY – Rockland County legislators have flexed their muscles by declaring county law authorizes them to decide whether to change insurance coverage for thousands of government retirees and their spouses.
The legislators — in a 16-0 vote Tuesday night — said the county charter empowers them to approve all contracts topping $100,000. The medical insurance package costs millions of dollars.
The debate emerged when County Executive Ed Day made what he called a cost-saving move to switch to an Aetna Medicare Advantage plan for 2,600 retirees. Day contended the insurance plan falls under policy decisions, rather than a contract, allowing him to change the coverage.
Legislators have countered that the charter prevents any reduction in benefits offered by the United Healthcare Empire Plan through the New York State Health Insurance Program. Day said the Aetna policy offers retirees equal coverage, at least.
Legislator Alden Wolfe, D-Montebello, said during the debate that changing insurance coverage was a “legislative-executive issue,” not a Democrat-Republican loyalty test. Legislators noted the governing body approved the current retirement insurance plan.
Legislators decided they couldn’t give up their authority to the county executive.
“I think it’s important that we stand up for this body when the charter says we have an opportunity, that our approval is required, in order to enter into a contract in excess of $100,000, that our rights as a body and co-equal branch of government is not eroded either slowly or destroyed quickly,” Wolfe said.
The Legislature action formally notifies Aetna that its contract is being challenged, and that any further expenses incurred by the company would be at its own risk.
Republican Minority Lon Hofstein, R-New City, agreed the vote was not political.
“I have been assured, as Legislator Wolfe has stated here just previously, that this was not politically motivated, that this is solely to prevent the county from incurring any unnecessary charges,” Hofstein said.
Day said his administration disagrees with the Legislature’s view.
“Differences of opinion between the legislative and executive branches of government are not unusual,” Day said Thursday. “We choose to be focused on delivering the best possible product for our retirees at the best cost available out of respect for our taxpayers. We are hopeful the Legislature follows the same path, regardless of technicalities.”
Day and the Legislature had agreed to move the deadline for retirees 65 and older to enroll in Aetna Medicare Advantage until Feb. 28. The original date was Feb. 1.
The proposed changeover has also been moved to June 1 from April 1 to allow legislators and retirees to review the new plan, meet with insurance company representatives and ask questions of administration officials.
Legislators argued the Day administration worked for 20 months on changing medical insurance coverage for retirees without including them in the discussions.
The Day administration unilaterally dropped the $31 million NYSHIP coverage, which provides insurance through the United Healthcare Empire Plan.
Aetna’s proposal is about $600,000 less for nine months if the change commenced April 1. The savings for 2019 is estimated close to $1 million.
The Day administration claims Aetna would provide an equal level if not better coverage in some areas.
After the deadlines were extended, Day said his administration looked forward to hearing from the legislators and how those views match up to the experts, adding “the Aetna Health Plan both provides better coverage for our retirees and does so at a lesser cost.”
Some legislators took issue with Day’s declaration they had not been involved in insurance issues, citing the resolutions approved over the years.
The deadline extension came after complaints from retirees and legislators. Retirees were notified by mail of the potential change but have yet to get the policy details.
Wolfe said the Legislature heard from “well over 100 people and not a single person who has written to us, emailed us, come here in person, called has expressed anything but opposition to this proposal.”
Legislature Chairman Toney Earl, D-Hillcrest, said legislators have not received copies of the actual notice of the change and retirees have not been given information on the proposed policies, such as identifying doctors and the insurance coverage.
“The winners here are the retirees who came to the Legislature’s meetings, who wrote us and called us and told us, firsthand, of their struggle to understand what the proposed new plan means to them,” Earl said in a prepared statement.
Retiree Steven Green, a Nanuet resident who worked for the mental health system and the county, said the changeover would increase his medical costs or force him to give up his doctors.
He said he’s a cancer survivor and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center insurance officials told him the hospital doesn’t take the Medicare advantage plan being offered by Aetna.
Green said Medicare picks up 80 percent of his medical costs, while the state insurance plan pays the remaining 20 percent, leaving him with affordable co-pays.
He said if he sticks with Medicare, he’d pay more with the Aetna plan for going out of network. He argued the county charter guarantees equivalent health coverage to what retirees had when they worked.
The Rockland civil service union also pushed for answers on the proposed Aetna coverage and encouraged retirees to press Day and legislators.
Jody Fox, a Suffern resident who chairs the Rockland-Orange Division of the Retired Public Employees Association, was critical of the Day administration for working on an insurance change for 20 months and not telling the Legislature and retirees.
“I think it was a mistake for the county executive to have to a private company do an RFP for a $31 million contract affecting many thousands of employees,” Fox said.