NYC unions affirm determination to switch retirees to privatized medical health insurance

City workers union leaders voted Wednesday to move retirees’ health benefits to a new plan under Medicare Advantage, a program in which public benefits are administered by private companies.

The vote, conducted by the Municipal Working Committee, voted for The Alliance, a collaboration between EmblemHealth and Anthem Blue Cross, to award a municipal contract for the bespoke Medicare Advantage plan.

“The city’s commitment to our retirees is unwavering and our new plan increases both quality and benefits for retirees while lowering costs for the city and its taxpayers,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement following the vote .

The move will affect around 250,000 urban retirees, hundreds of whom marched against changes in Manhattan last week amid a heatwave. Critics had expressed concerns that access to care would be restricted under the new plan, while some retirees complained that the process of change was not sufficiently transparent.

“You should have brought us in a year ago when the city first created the call for proposals,” said Stuart Eber, President of the Council of Local Pensioners’ Organizations.

His group launched a petition in March to preserve existing benefits and include retiree organizations in the process of changes. It had collected nearly 25,000 signatures by Tuesday afternoon.

But in their statement on Wednesday, city officials tried to allay fears. Any doctor who accepts traditional Medicare payments must accept payments from the NYC Medicare Advantage Plus program, they said. This includes specialty hospitals like Memorial Sloan-Kettering and the Hospital for Special Surgery, as well as most hospitals and doctors across the country.

Currently, urban retirees have access to Medicare, the federal program that provides health insurance to people over 65. The city pays retirees the monthly contributions for Medicare Part B, which covers outpatient care. City funds also provide additional coverage for services not covered by traditional Medicare. Shifting retirees to the new Medicare Advantage plan will cover the city’s contribution and save about $ 600 million annually, according to the mayor’s office.

In 2014, the city’s working committee agreed for the first time to work with the mayor’s office to reduce skyrocketing healthcare costs. The latest maneuver is part of a broader healthcare austerity plan announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio in June 2018.

In the run-up to Wednesday’s vote, the committee also tried to reassure members that the plan under consideration would retain existing benefits without increasing individual costs.

“To ensure quality care and premium-free health insurance for our retirees, the MLC has developed our own Medicare Advantage Plan – a plan that is different from any other existing MA programs,” the task force said in materials sent to union leaders were sent.

According to the documents, the savings would come from federal subsidies that are only available to Medicare Advantage plans because they reduce government administrative costs.

However, some who will be affected by the change say they are suspicious of any plan under the Medicare Advantage label.

Medicare Advantage memberships have skyrocketed across the country in recent years, and many plans include benefits not covered by traditional Medicare. However, a 2017 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that Medicare Advantage plans were not as widely accepted by doctors and hospitals. Another report by KFF released earlier this year found that Medicare Advantage members were more likely to report cost-related issues than those enrolled in traditional Medicare with supplemental coverage.

Eber and other retirees speaking to WNYC / Gothamist feared that any savings would result from the Medicare Advantage plan, which delays or denies coverage for necessary care.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Teachers’ Association and vice chairman of the local working committee, is among the prominent union leaders who support the move. He has said that the comparisons made by retirees between the city’s custom plan and other Medicare Advantage plans in the market are misleading.

However, other union leaders expressed concerns about the changes. James Davis, president of CUNY’s professional convention, issued a statement Monday calling for the vote to be postponed as he did not have enough time to review information about the contract. (The application was denied.) He said he hadn’t received a copy of the contract itself, but details of the new plan were sent to union leaders last Thursday.

“Our members are deeply concerned about the MLC’s rush to vote on this proposal,” Davis said in a statement on Monday. He added: “This austerity measure opens the door to further cost reductions and reduced benefits on future contracts.”

In the run-up to the vote, WNYC / Gothamist was unable to receive comment on the protests against the proposed changes from Mulgrew or other leaders of the Municipal Working Committee, including Harry Nespoli, President of the Local 831 Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, and Henry Garrido. President of DC 37.

Following the vote, Nespoli issued a statement stating, “Maintaining our members’ access to premium-free healthcare is one of the MLC’s top priorities and today’s vote will help achieve that goal.”

The new plan will take effect in January 2022.

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