City retiree plan hits bumpy road
Choice: Pay more for health insurance or lose it all
Faced with a funding shortfall that could soar into the millions of dollars in the coming decades, the city of Grand Junction is considering requiring hundreds of current and retired employees to pay more for health insurance or abolishing the benefit altogether.
That has raised concerns among the more than 600 city employees and retirees who have invested in the retiree health care plan, some of whom retired early or took buyouts from the city based on the benefit.
Many of those retirees lined up before the Grand Junction City Council last week, pleading with city officials to honor the commitment they made.
One of those retirees was former City Clerk Stephanie Tuin, who for 24 years sat on the same side of the dais as city councilors.
A number of retirees who had invested in the plan for years while they were employees now are “worried and fearful” about the turn of events, Tuin said. Knowing she would receive the benefit was one consideration she weighed in deciding to retire when she did, she said.
“I ask that you consider the retirees, all of whom worked faithfully and loyally for the city for at least 15 years, most for many, many more, and all of the other employees invested in the plan,” Tuin said, the first in a line of retirees to testify at the meeting. “I don’t believe this is simply an operational issue. This is a policy issue and the City Council should be part of that decision.”
The nearly 20-year-old plan, which all employees pay into, ensures workers who are at least 50 years old will receive health insurance through Rocky Mountain Health Plans upon retirement. Contributions to the retiree health care fund are separate, additional contributions aside from the city’s regular health care plan.
The problem came to the fore during last week’s council meeting, but the city has been sounding the alarm the past couple of years that the fund is not sustainable. A recent study projected the fund to be shy $525,000 this year and a total of $10 million over the next 30 years, Financial Operations Director Jodi Romero said.
“We can’t really point to one thing. It’s a combination of factors why the plan is not meeting with reality,” Romero said in explaining why the fund is no longer sustainable. “During the recession, we didn’t increase health care costs when we should have.”
Retirees said they spoke up at the meeting after receiving a letter from the city notifying them the cost of the benefit would be increased or could be discontinued.
City officials had worked to form a trust for the fund, but even putting the money in a trust would not generate enough funds to keep the retiree health care plan afloat, Romero said.
Former Grand Junction Fire Capt. Jamie Richardson worked for the fire department for 26 years before persistent back pain from job-related injuries forced him into retirement two years ago. The 57-year-old is still eight years away from receiving Medicare benefits.
Richardson said he initially injured his back in 1998 extracting children from a car in a canal. He dealt with the pain as best he could, but sustained another back injury carrying a roughly 300-pound person down a stairwell.
“My back was bad enough that doctors determined I couldn’t be a firefighter anymore,” Richardson told councilors. “... In good faith, I paid into the system. For people in emergency services in particular, you’re kind of like a football player. Your body’s only going to last for so long… I made a commitment, you know, in my career to the public and I carried it out regardless of kind of some lousy situations … I’m just asking that the city honor the commitment that they made to us and that this health care is really important to us.”
For some employees who are working in the city’s public safety jobs — including police and fire — they participate just in case they’re injured on the job and have to retire before they reach the age they’re eligible for Medicare.
Grand Junction police officer Rocky Baldozier signed up to contribute to the retirement health insurance when he joined the department in 2007. For the past 10 1/2 years, he has contributed $18 per paycheck toward the plan.
He’s hoping it wasn’t just a gamble to pay into the plan over the years, and that talk of axing the plan won’t come to fruition.
“I think somebody needs to come up with a plan,” Baldozier said in an interview with The Daily Sentinel. “Don’t just dump it.”
Baldozier is looking at purchasing the rest of his years to be qualified for the plan, as he’s facing possible medical retirement after enduring three on-the-job injuries since January 2016, which have left him with severe back pain and made going back to patrol unlikely.
The injuries came from detaining uncooperative subjects, falling during a foot pursuit, getting hit in the face with a bottle and picking up a woman who was going to get hit by a car and getting her out of the street.
Now he’s 49 years old, with a family to support that also needs insurance, including two daughters in college.
He’s a long way away from qualifying for Medicare, and he’s concerned about having insurance if he’s forced to medically retire.
Baldozier hopes there could be some compromise — he’s not against raising premiums or deductibles to keep the insurance a financially viable option — but he’s concerned at the thought of eliminating it altogether.
Other retirees testified last week they were forced to retire from the city early to deal with a cancer diagnosis or to take care of a spouse with cancer. Another retiree said he took a layoff option in 2009 when the city called for voluntary staff reductions. One perk of separating early was inclusion in the retiree health care program.
Retirees said the future of the retiree health care plan also could change retirement plans for any number of city employees. The average age of a city employee is 47, according to the city.
Retirees pleaded with councilors to consider the issue a policy decision, meaning councilors, not city management, would decide its fate.
City Councilor Duke Wortmann said he wanted to keep the program for retirees, but he first wanted to hear more information about it.
“My feeling is once a promise is made, a promise is kept,” Wortmann said by phone this week. “…We need to promise people that gave their life to the city that we’ll take care of them.”
Wortmann said he was “very humbled” by the retirees coming forward in the public meeting. However, he said city benefits should be based in reality, and health care costs are expensive for many people.
City spokeswoman Sam Rainguet emphasized that city officials still are considering how to proceed with the fund, and that no decisions have been made.
“This is gut-wrenching stuff,” she said. “Everyone recognizes the importance of this. That’s why it’s taking time and we’re taking this very seriously.”