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VOL. 129 | NO. 138 | Thursday, July 17, 2014

Council Moves to Bridge Gaps in Health Coverage Changes

By Bill Dries

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The ad hoc committee that gathered municipal union leaders, city retirees and Memphis City Council members at the same table to talk about city health insurance meets Thursday, July 17, for the first time since the council approved health insurance plan changes that have drawn vocal protests from city employees and retirees.

Leaders of the unions and retiree groups claim Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s proposed changes, which would take effect in January, were a surprise that was never discussed by the oversight committee.

The group gets together Thursday to work out contingencies to make sure employees and retirees retain some kind of health care coverage, either within the city system or outside in the health insurance marketplace.

And the options remain a hotly contested point among the retirees in particular, Wharton and some on the council.

STRICKLAND

“Please do not boo any speaker that disagrees with you,” council chairman Jim Strickland said to a standing-room-only crowd in the council chambers at City Hall Tuesday. That drew a cascade of boos from the crowd, to which Strickland responded, “We will clear this chamber if need be.”

That didn’t happen. But the meeting included an hour and a half of comments, mainly from firefighters and police officers and their families who are angry about the health insurance changes and proposed pension changes the council is scheduled to vote on in October.

“You are about to find out who my God is,” said firefighter Mark Kelly. “You’ve got to come before my God, and he knows who you are. … I am not going away.”

Changes to health insurance benefits for city employees and retirees are likely to stand despite protests.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“You’re not going into burning houses. You’re not taking your garbage any further than the curb,” said Robert Kramer as he made the case for keeping the benefits at existing levels for service to the city. “You’re not dodging bullets, at least not yet.”

Retired Memphis Police Major Pat Lovett was among those who spoke against the changes.

“These people before you will not go quietly in the night,” she said, adding that large groups of the employees and their families would continue to show up for the twice-monthly council meetings.

Wharton has said repeatedly since the June vote that no city employee or retiree will be left without coverage.

Retirees counter that the coverage would be too expensive to afford without city subsidies or that they have already been told they are uninsurable on the health care exchanges.

The city changes also carve out spouses from continued city health insurance coverage if they are offered health insurance at their jobs.

The oversight committee is to make recommendations to the council by the end of September on specific issues, including Medicare Part B coverage costs, line-of-duty disability injuries and line-of-duty disability retirees.

The council, meanwhile, delayed a vote to its July 29 meeting on a $2 million “safety net” that was originally described as a fund for those who have difficulty making the transition.

The proposal by council member Edmund Ford Jr. was delayed after some council members complained it had changed dramatically.

City human resources director Quintin Robinson said there were problems with offering those kind of transitional subsidies.

“As we build this safety net fund, we have to be careful that we enlist the help of attorneys who are well-versed in health care law,” Robinson told the council. “To the extent that there is direction or guidelines that call for any direct subsidy or indirect subsidy, we must be careful that that process does not collide with federal subsidies.”

Council member Harold Collins, who was out of town when the council voted in June to approve the health insurance changes, set the framework for specific discussions starting Thursday to resolve the dramatically different versions of what will happen when the changes take effect.

Memphis Fire Fighters Association President Thomas Malone expressed frustration with the review of specific provisions after the council approved the changes.

“Let’s get down to fixing this problem instead of camouflaging everything,” he said. “I’m sick of talking. Let’s get this done.”

Memphis Police Association President Mike Williams accused the city of “putting the cart before the horse.”

“You guys actually voted on this thing, and now we are going back to fill in the holes,” he said as he suggested the council put a referendum on the ballot later this year for a half-cent citywide sales tax increase to fund restoring the benefits. “You put it on there and we’ll go get it approved.”

Wharton said the city has little choice in the scale of the changes. Savings from the health insurance changes go to the city’s unfunded pension liability and to reducing the larger health insurance liability.

“Until we get this pension thing cleared, guess where that money is going?” Wharton said Tuesday. “That giant sucking sound.”

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