The Municipal Labor Committee, an umbrella group representing city unions, voted last Wednesday to shift the health benefits of about 250,000 retirees to a new plan under Medicare Advantage, a program in which private companies contract with the federal government to offer the public health benefits.
“The city’s commitment to our retirees is unwavering, and our new plan increases both quality and benefits for retirees while also lowering costs for the city and its taxpayers,” said Mayor de Blasio in a press release he sent out over the vote.
The move has resulted in backlash among many of the city’s retired city employees. Hundreds of them, as reported by amNew York, marched against the new insurance package in Manhattan last week. The Council of Municipal Retiree Organizations, a federation of retired city workers, created a petition against the deal that garnered over 25,000 signatures.
The criticism has been split between those concerned that the new plan will reduce access to doctors and healthcare services, and the complaint that the MLC did not do enough to consult with its rank-and-file retirees in the process before making the change. Some protesters also said that it will significantly increase out-of-pocket costs.
Crain’s reported that the New York State Nurses Association, CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress, the Doctors Council and the Committee of Interns and Residents voted against the proposal Wednesday.
“We know that change can be difficult, but we are confident that this will be implemented with little disruption and that the City will continue to provide high quality healthcare to its over 1.2 million active employees, retirees, and dependents,” said Commissioner of Labor Relations Renee Campion in a statement.
The city is set to save $600 million annually under the new plan. Under the current system, retirees have access to Medicare, the federal benefit for people 65 and older, and the city pays for Medicare Part B, which covers outpatient care. In materials the UFT sent out about the new plan, the union argued against the notion that the move represents a shift to privatization because the city already does pay for a Medicare supplement, designed to help cover the expenses that Medicare doesn’t cover, through EmblemHealth.
The Advantage plan contains an annual deductible of $253 and maximum of $1,470 on out-of-pocket expenses, according to a comparison between Senior Care, the city’s current plan for retirees, the new program that the United Federation of Teachers sent out. Co-pays will be $15 for a majority of outpatient services, $50 for emergency care and $300 for inpatient stays.
Medicare Advantage plans have become increasingly popular across the country in recent years, and the results have not always been positive. A 2017 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that Medicare Advantage plans led to restrictions on hospitals and doctors where enrollees can receive care.
Despite the city’s assurances that under the new plan a retiree can go to any doctor or hospital that accepts Medicare whether or not the provider is in the insurer’s network or not, many of the retired workers remain skeptical.
Carol Giardina, an associate professor at Queens College, said that her concerns stem from what she’s heard about Medicare Advantage recipients in other states. After open heart surgery, one of her friends in Florida was not able to get into the rehab program of her choice. The only one available was poorly rated and far from her home and family.
“How are they going to make Medicare Advantage follow through? Even with a contract people don’t follow through,” she said.
Giardina asked rhetorically what someone would do if they suddenly found themselves in her friend’s situation.
“You’d have to contact your lawyer and your union and the city and jump through 45 hoops, and maybe you could get them to follow through if you threatened, maybe in a couple of weeks, but you’re not going to stay in the hospital all that time?”