Weekly News Update: June 28, 2024

In addition to this week’s update being the last for the month of June, it will also be the last prior to Independence Day. Please look for the next update on Friday, July 12.

I’ve also not included a video within this week’s report. Truth be told, I’m recovering from a bout with COVID. While I’m feeling much better, have been able to work from home and will soon be 100% back on my feet, recording a video just was not in the cards.

At the start of 2024 we reported that there were four primary issues of focus for our Association this year: creation of the Special COLA Commission, increasing the State Basic Life Insurance Benefit, defending retiree health insurance benefits, and advocating at the federal level for the US Congress to finally bring an end to the Social Security WEP & GPO laws.

As you know, both the COLA Commission and Basic Life Insurance increase are now before the House/Senate FY25 budget conference committee. The annual State and Teacher COLA increase is also contained within the annual budget. We are now awaiting the final version of the budget to be released by the conference committee, which is likely to occur by mid-July.

At the federal level, we know that active discussions are underway in both the House and US Senate on the issues of WEP/GPO. This follows three separate hearings on the issues since last November. As always, we will keep you well informed as news becomes available.

I would like to make it clear that our advocacy work on WEP/GPO in no way detracts from the work being done on the COLA, health insurance or any other issue here in Massachusetts. Nor does our daily work at the state and local levels have any impact on what is happening in Washington, DC. Not only are these issues mutually exclusive, but also involve entirely separate levels of government as well as different sets of elected officials. It is not a matter of choosing one issue over the other, nor has it ever been.

Our primary focus this week is your health insurance. The start of a new fiscal year means that, for most retirees and active employees, the clock resets in terms of deductibles and certain limits on the number of visits, etc.

At times, the start of the new fiscal year also brings enrollment in new insurance plans or other changes in coverage. For instance, if you are a GIC enrollee and changed plans during open enrollment then July 1 begins your coverage under the new plan.

If you have switched plans or are enrolled in a Wellpoint (formerly UniCare) plan under the GIC then you will receive a new insurance card. If you have not yet received the new card, it should arrive by early next week. If you are currently a UniCare enrollee and have not changed plans, your insurance ID number under Wellpoint will remain unchanged. Again, beyond the name change from UniCare to Wellpoint, no other changes have been made to these specific plans.

Additionally, if you are one of the more than 1,500 retirees that joined the GIC’s Retiree Dental Plan for the first time in FY25 you will also be in receipt of your new insurance card from MetLife within the coming days. The GIC reports that there are now some 45,551 retirees enrolled in the retiree-pay-all dental plan, which continues to show substantial growth year-over-year.

Members may know that the GIC’s Retiree Dental Plan was created in 2002, following the passage of legislation initiated by our Association. Prior to that time retirees were not afforded the option of dental insurance. In fact, when it was created some 22 years ago the plan was among the few of its kind anywhere in the country. Benefits offered under the plan, while modest, reflect a balance between affordability for retirees and quality coverage. To their credit, GIC officials have continued to work toward benefit improvements with the plan.

At the local level our level our concern continues to rise. Specifically, as a growing number of municipal budgets fall under financial strain, the target on local health insurance benefits grows larger. Sadly, some local officials view retiree benefits as an easy avenue for budget cuts.

We witnessed this same scenario in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when some municipal governments began to focus on health insurance “reforms” as a cost saving measure. What was couched as a “reform” often turned out to be nothing more than cost shifting and a degradation of benefit plan design that left retirees paying more for fewer benefits.

Given that state law grants municipal governments the authority to make certain changes to health insurance plans without the consent of local retirees or active employee unions, we must take these issues very seriously. Often it is our ability to organize and place political pressure on local officials not to target retiree health insurance benefits for cuts is what prevents the worst case outcomes.

What makes this latest iteration of potential cuts different is that we’ve been down this road before and know what to expect. Not only are we prepared for the fight but are actively taking steps to get out in front of what is surely coming.

Just yesterday, Nancy McGovern and I participated in a planning meeting hosted by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts. The meeting, which also included representatives of several public employee unions (AFT and PFFM were in attendance), is in preparation for the 2nd Annual Municipal Healthcare Summit schedule to take place this fall and facilitated by our friends at BCBS of MA.

The purpose of the Summit is to bring health insurance experts, labor/retiree leaders, and local public employee committee (PEC) members together to share information and coordinate efforts surrounding municipal health insurance plans.

If you are insured in a municipal health insurance plan and are either currently involved in local health insurance bargaining or are interested in getting involved, please let us know. It is important to have members well informed and at the ready to get involved locally should the need arise. If you have an interest, please email Nancy at mcgovern@massretirees.com.

If you are a state retiree insured under the GIC, you can still help. You can support local retirees and retired teachers by letting us know of developments in your community involving local health insurance and/or pension benefits. If needed, you may also receive a call to action asking for your participation in meetings taking place before local government authorities.

Regardless of where you are retired from or the source of your retirement benefits, all public retirees are in this fight together. It is through unity that your benefits will not only be protected but also improved.

I hope you have a wonderful Independence Day! We will be back with a full update on Friday, July 12th.

With great appreciation,

Shawn Duhamel

Chief Executive Officer

Mass Retirees Association

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