Rockland: Ed Day, legislators battle over retiree insurance switch
Rockland County officials are sparring over a plan to switch insurance carries for its retirees.
NEW CITY – A confrontation between County Executive Ed Day and the Rockland Legislature has momentarily eased following reaction to the executive’s move to change insurance coverage for thousands of retired county employees and their spouses.
The deadline set for Feb.1 for retirees 65 and older to enroll in Aetna Medicare Advantage has been extended until Feb. 28. An estimated 2,600 retired county workers are insured through the county but thousands of spouses also are affected.
The proposed changeover also has been moved to 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.
Whether Day can change the insurance coverage without the Legislature’s approval remains in question.
Legislators argue they must approve all contracts topping $100,000. Day argued the insurance change amounted to a policy decision and the Legislature had not been involved in choosing insurance policies for more than 15 years.
The brouhaha commenced when the Day administration unilaterally changed insurance coverage to Aetna, dropping the $31 million New York State Health Insurance Program, known as NYSHIP, which provides insurance through the United Healthcare Empire Plan.
Aetna’s proposal is about $600,000 savings for nine months if the change commenced April 1 this year from the current $31 million. 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.
“There was a miscommunication in terms of notifying the legislators,” Day spokesman John Lyon said Thursday. “The county executive does regret that occurred. We think once the legislators look at the plan, they will see the benefits and clearly how superior it is to the current plan.”
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.
The concerns resulted in Day’s representatives meeting Tuesday night with the Legislature’s Budget and Finance Committee and a number of retirees at the county office building in New City. Also involved in the changeover are Karen Cassa, the county director of insurance and risk management, who led the change, and Personnel Commissioner Lori Gruebel.
Legislator 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.
“The fact that there is no actual final policy to review, and to compare to the current plan, means the retirees can’t possibly determine the potential impacts to them if the change is put in place,” Earl said.
Legislator Jay Hood, D-Haverstraw, said the governing body needs to see the agreement with Aetna to make an informed decision.
“If we don’t have the contract, which should also include the details of the proposed new plan, we can’t determine if it is an apples-to-apples plan or if it is changing benefits in a way that does not conform to (county law),” said Hood, who chairs Budget & Finance Committee.
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 medicaid 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.
“I don’t understand what’s the big deal about changing to Aetna,” Green said, asking why the county is looking to change. “You are talking probably close to 5,000 people affected. They are taking away my choice here and potentially costing me more money.”
Jody Fox, a Suffern resident who chairs the Rockland-Orange Division of RPEA, was critical of the Day administration for working on an insurance change for 20 months and not telling the Legislature and retirees. RPEA is the Retired Public Employees Association.
“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.
Day said in a statement that the Legislature had not been involved in choosing an insurance contract for more than a decade, delegating the authority to the director of insurance and the County Executive’s Office.
“Frankly, the Legislature caught us by surprise as for the first time in over 15 years they have shown interest in insurance policies,” Day said in a statement.
Day said his administration looks 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.”
The Legislature had planned to seek a temporary restraining order to block the insurance changes Thursday in state Supreme Court.
But the extension made that unnecessary when James DeWan, director of the Employee Benefits Division for the state Department of Civil Service, extended the deadline until Feb. 28. The department oversees health benefits for current and retired municipal workers.
The Rockland CSEA Local 844 also pushed for answers on the proposed Aetna coverage and encouraged retirees to press Day and legislators.
“There are many unanswered questions about this switch, which the county executive has apparently been planning behind closed doors for 20 months,” the CSEA said in a statement on its Facebook page. “Not all retirees received communication from the county notifying them of the change and of the informational meetings held to discuss the Aetna plan.”