Five-Year Health Insurance Repayment Requirement Criticized in White Plains

A spokesman for a group of retired White Plains firefighters has expressed concern about a requirement from the city that members of his group will be responsible to provide the city with back, unpaid health insurance payments within five years regardless of their income.

Ed Lobermann said last week it was not fair to retired firefighters of limited means to meet the five-year payback requirement.

Lobermann, a retired firefighter, spoke on behalf of himself and about 100 other retired firefighters at several meetings in 2019.

The Common Council approved legislation at a special meeting on Dec. 23. Under the legislation, five years after a retiree becomes Medicare eligible unpaid health insurance premiums must be paid back within five years. Only those retirees 70 years or older will no longer be required to pay for part of their health insurance as of April 1. All those similarly situated retirees under the age of 70 are still required to pay 15 percent of their health insurance.

The active White Plains firefighters similarly situated had their benefits restored as of July 1, 2015 whereby they pay nothing in retirement and the firefighters already retired will pay 15 percent until they reach the age of 70.

For the past several months retired firefighters have attended the Citizens to be Heard portions of Common Council meetings to seek the policy change. Due to a difficult financial period, the city required firefighters to pay 15 percent of their health insurance premiums beginning in 2010. In 2015 the Common Council restored the benefit to active firefighters but not to retirees of the fire department.

Last week Lobermann said, referring to the recently approved legislation, “It’s all blowing up.”

Lobermann said he met with some city officials, including Commissioner of Finance Sergio Sensi on Jan. 15 but he was told to his disappointment that the policy of regarding the health insurance repayments would not change.

Lobermann said he does not deny that some retired firefighters will be obligated to repay health insurance premiums as part of the recent legislation. But the requirement is not equitable because it would harm the oldest and most financially vulnerable retirees, he said. Lobermann said he wanted fairness “for those who owe $28,000 in back payments” but who cannot afford to do so because they are living on limited incomes. “It’s not a matter of numbers,” Lobermann said. “It’s a matter of good faith.”

City officials responded to Lobermann’s comments last week, stating there is no plan to change the requirement.

“The Common Council has been more than reasonable and has done more than required by union contracts or by the law in this situation,” Karen Pasquale, senior advisor to Mayor Tom Roach, said last week. “The Council has worked to strike the right balance between being fair to its retirees and at the same time mindful of the burden of any new programs on the taxpayer.”

“After the city succeeded in defending against all challenges to the Common Council’s 2010 ordinance, the Common Council decided as a matter of its discretion to give certain additional benefits to a group of retirees. I believe it was a good compromise,” Council President Nadine Hunt-Robinson said.

Lobermann also recently met with Councilman John Martin, who was Council president in December when the legislation was approved.

“I am initially confused by the comment that there’s an agreement ‘blowing up.’ There is no agreement to blow up,” Martin said, adding the Council approved the changes through legislation, not as an agreement or settlement with the retirees.

“What we were attempting to do in that ordinance was to restore fully paid health insurance to retired firefighters, police officers and many other city employees under certain circumstances,” Martin said. “The city was forced to cut the portion of health insurance paid by the city from 100 percent to 85 percent during the financial crisis of 2009-2010. Several retirees, including the firefighters, chose to litigate this issue but none were successful. In late 2019, largely in response to the request of the retired firefighters, we looked at the request to restore the full benefit but chose to look at it for all classes of retirees. Finding the ability to pay such benefits for at least some of the retirees, we enacted the ordinance.

“This ordinance required that any retiree with unpaid balances of their 15 percent due would have to enter a repayment agreement with the city to be eligible to now, on April 1, 2020, receive the fully restored 100 percent city paid health insurance,” Martin said. “When the ordinance was initially drafted it required those repayment agreements to be for a maximum of three years. After speaking with Mr. Lobermann I moved to amend the ordinance to allow up to five years for this repayment and this amendment was unanimously passed.”

The repayment period was set by Sensi, Martin said.

Messages left for Sensi last week were not returned.

Martin said retirees were advised on many occasions to set aside money for unpaid health insurance premiums in the event the firefighters lost their litigation against the city.

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