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Judge allows county to cut health care benefits

By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by Sonoma County government retirees over a controversial rollback in contributions to their health care premiums.

The Sonoma County Association of Retired Employees claimed in a lawsuit last year that the county reneged on a contractual promise in 2008 when it began forcing retirees to pay an increasing share of premium costs.

The rollback, which also affects current employees and eventually will reduce county contributions to retiree health care to $500 a month, went against previous county pledges to pay “substantially all of the cost” of employee medical benefits during retirement, the association claimed.

But U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken in San Francisco said the association, which represents about 1,500 former county workers, failed to show that the county agreed to provide retirees with health care benefits in perpetuity.

The association “has not identified any specific Sonoma County resolution or ordinance that granted its members this purported vested right” to health care benefits, Wilken wrote in her decision last week.

It followed an earlier court order in May that dismissed the original complaint but allowed the association to file an amended complaint with documentation of its claims.

“This validated for us that we had the authority to do what we did,” Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Valerie Brown said of the restructured medical benefits.

Association president Carol Bauer said the group plans to appeal.

She said Wilken shortchanged the value of “implied contracts,” identified as job postings and memoranda of understanding with employees, that the group claims promised retirees lifelong health care benefits.

“We have some good points and (the case) needs to be looked at in the broader context,” Bauer said.

The dispute stems from changes to rein in health care costs that supervisors approved unanimously in August 2008 over heated opposition from current and retired workers. At the time, then county administrator Bob Deis said the county faced annual deficits of $15 million because of rising health care premiums that were predicted to total $407 million over the next 30 years.

Under the changes, which went into effect last June, the county’s contribution to retiree health benefits will decrease 20 percent annually over five years until 2013 when it reaches a level of $500 a month per retiree, regardless of the number of dependents.

Officials estimate the changes affect about 40 percent of the 2,500 county retirees who are eligible for county medical benefits. The remainder are unaffected because they are eligible for other coverage, such as Medicare, officials said.

Similar changes were imposed on 650 non-union county employees and unions representing about 3,000 workers. However, those employees received a discretionary cash allowance of $600 per month, which retirees did not get.

Retirees argued in the lawsuit that they were owed a similar cash allowance, but the court ruling denied that claim.

The county already has saved about $15 million in retiree medical costs because of the changes, according to a review of benefit costs released earlier this year.

Those numbers also validated the restructuring, supervisors said.

“It was a step that needed to be taken. In the end, it will be a huge benefit for Sonoma County,” former supervisor Tim Smith said in May, when the savings were announced.

Representatives of the retiree association have questioned the county’s savings figure, claiming the total paid out in cash allowances each year amounts to $40 million, or double the estimated annual county savings for active and retired workers.

Undoing the rollback also remains a goal for some employee groups in contract negotiations.

Meanwhile, retiree representatives say former workers on fixed incomes are struggling to pay for their health care coverage. Some may have to drop their insurance, Bauer said

“It’s very difficult for people who retired thinking they had their health care paid for the rest of their lives,” she said.





13 Responses to “Judge allows county to cut health care benefits”

  1. Paul says:

    The county lied. We are in trouble for believing the county = in the 1990s the County did not give pay increases – promising benefits. I wish I had known this 25 years ago I would not have retired.

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  2. Just me says:

    Anyone seen the latest posting for Human Resources Director? Monthly salary range: $12,134.86 – $14,750.72 Monthly
    OUTRAGEOUS!!!! Especially when you consider the rank & file employees actually doing the work makes an average of this in 6-9 months! And their retirement pay is less than that!

    I’m a retired County employee and I can guarantee you that 99% of us do not make what you think we do on our retirement pay.

    Yes, leaving before Social Security retirement age after 25 years of service and being treated like non-humans not only from the public but the department heads is necessary for many of us just so we can survive with our health and without going over the edge crazy.

    Think it’s that good there…it’s not. It’s toxic.
    The top 1% INCLUDING THE B.O.S. have made it that way.

    You want it to change, yet you keep voting in the same ol’ boys and gals.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  3. Tired Tom says:

    Take a look at the poor souls working in the rain and the blazing heat. They have no promise of a job next week let alone a retirement footing the bill for your salary and pension. Listening to you complain about your health care benefits while collecting 80 to 90% of your pre- retirement salary. Working for a public employee on their own home who simply says I can have that $27,000 deck. I will just work overtime this month! FYI this truly happened and yes this person had the money 30 days later! Makes me sick to my stomach that the hard working taxpayers footed the bill for this one. Did we really benefit from the extra time spent? Sorry people cry me a river but face the facts we are broke and cant afford your lavish life style and benefits! Get in line with the financial reality the rest of us live with.

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  4. Jonny Boy says:

    Yo Truth… not sure where you got the impression that I’d gladly pay for the retirement of government officials… maybe you could shed some light on that one for me.

    I would never balk at supporting a reasonable and sustainable plan of remuneration for our coveted public safety. What we have now is excessive, if not downright silly.

    That cops pay taxes too is not relevant to this discussion… or are you trying to make the argument that public safety pensions are self-funded and are not pulling at the public teat?

    I’m well aware that of any given 500 applicants, very few could actually make it past the grueling gauntlet of psychological testing, polygraph testing, background investigations, interviews, etc. Be that as it may, 500 still apply. Possible that they do so because the job isn’t as horrible as you’d like us to believe?

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  5. truth in news says:

    @ Jonny Boy. You gladly pay for the retirement of government officials who retire after 1 year, yet balk at paying for people who actually work for a living. Looka at Bob Dias. Stripped SCERA folks of the very retirement perks HE demanded and got. As far as you shouldering the bill, remember, these cops pay taxes too. 500 applicants? How many do you think qualify for the job? Anyone can apply for a job. If you want to change how things are done start at the top with the idiot democrats who keep spending us into the ground.

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  6. Jonny Boy says:

    Yo Truth… Ninety percent of your salary at age 50 (or 55, whatever) looks a little thin?? Are you kidding me? Try 28% at age 62 (or 69, whatever).

    Look, we all know that the job can be difficult, but trying to paint a picture of folks doing work that most others would squirm to think about is patently ridiculous. If the job were really as horrible as you’d like us to believe, you wouldn’t have five hundred applicants lined up for the same job opening.

    The issue at hand is a simple one. Degree of job difficulty notwithstanding, are these types of pensions sustainable or not? I think not. To debate medical entitlements for the retirees (and their families) in addition to these not-to-be-had-in-the-private-sector pensions is not only absurd, it’s a little insulting to those of us footing the bill.

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  7. truth in news says:

    Lets see…cops are able to retire at 50 with 90% of their pay. That means they had to start their career at 20 and stick with it. They dealt with problems that most people would squirm to even think about. All while living a life under a magnifying glass of public opinion. Most of them do not recieve SSI because they never paid into the program. So that 90% starts to look a little thin after 25 years. Suck it up folks.

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  8. Jonny Boy says:

    I sit here, mouth agape, desperately trying to drum up a modicum of sympathy for public safety retirees… but find myself failing miserably.

    The opportunity to retire at age 50 with 90% of their salaries apparently isn’t enough… we must shoulder the expense of their healthcare, too??? Please! Enough already!

    It’s all about me! Line my pockets! Who cares if the system collapses… I want MINE!

    Thumb up 7 Thumb down 15

  9. Watch what you wish for. says:

    Officer, officer, stop they child molester…. sorry Maam, I 62 years old, have a bad knee and have had hip replacement, I can’t chase anyone. The only reason I am working now is because I can’t afford to retire. I’m sure some one else will step up and stop him. Have a nice day.

    Thumb up 15 Thumb down 9

  10. bear says:

    Let’s think about all the TV ads offering to get us out of tax or credit card debt. Seems like a lot of folks have overextended themselves and – likely due to the current economy – would like to escape financial commitments (promises) they made in the past.

    Health insurance is an unrelated issue. It is a promise, but not one related to excessive personal spending or tax evasion by the recipient. It was an understood benefit of working a long career for less pay than received by those in the private sector.

    Remember, we’re talking about retired people who have no opportunity to go back and correct possible career mistakes.

    But now we’re in an economic environment that is bad – but not because of anything retirees have done. Most of us have advanced degrees, or certifications, and made a conscious choice to trust the promises made by County government. Representing all of you. And if anyone tells you public service is fun, easy or not massively stressful, I’d like a chance to correct their views.

    The monthly premiums for my wife and I have gone up over 70% in the last year. Pushing $600 a month for two. They’ll likely go up by the same amount next year and after that they will exceed our mortgage and possibly force us out of our home.

    The County has given away any leverage they might have had over costs. $500 a month? The insurance corporations will laugh and charge what they want. To benefit themselves, drug corporations, the taxpayers and the Board of Supervisors.

    And to reduce the disposable income of every Sonoma County retiree wherever they live – and a lot live in Sonoma County. Sorry, we won’t be spending locally with money we don’t have.

    The real objective here is to drive retirees away from promised benefits.

    Why not just give us $6K a year?

    I REALLY resent the insults directed at those who may have retired at something under SS age. Are we all equally healthy? Do we not take a considerably smaller retirement for retiring younger? Maybe we just burned out after 25 or 30 years? Want to deal with burned out county employees? Not recommended.

    Let’s not destroy families because we’re having an economic downturn caused by moronic national economic and foreign policies.

    Keep your promises, and your integrity.

    We promise to die soon.

    Thumb up 14 Thumb down 6

  11. Neil Peoples says:

    I can sympathize with the difficulties of planning one’s retirement and having benefits reduced. However, there is an implication in the article that these are retirees that do not yet qualify for Medicare. If that is the case, I’m less sympathetic, how about working until retirement age?
    I do hope that issues like this help those covered by Government or Employer based health plans realize what many of us small businesses and individuals deal with every day, ever escalating health insurance costs and, particularly now, decreasing revenue.
    Maybe health care reform isn’t such a bad idea when you walk in someone else’s shoes.

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  12. Mike says:

    Cutting health benefits is a small beginning of what needs to come. High salaries and high pensions need to be substantially reduced now. I know there will be crying from the special interest groups and unions who would have the world end before they would give an inch but the county is broke and needs to get a started on a restructed wage and pension scheme.

    Maybe th answer is bankrupcy. Then the County can renegotiate the union contracts and stop the spending which cannot be sustained. If the County Board wouldn’t do it a judge will.

    All of this is not a pretty picture for the financial future of Sonoma County, but the rescue forces are not on the way. They County Board will have to figure this one out themselves and they, being politians, have not shown in the past they are capable of making cuts to the unions who put them in power.

    It is messy and lots of crying to come from all sides. The County cannot find help from the new Governor or the new Congress. There are few options and time is not on the side of waiting.

    Thumb up 11 Thumb down 12

  13. Joe Moderatz says:

    Federal courts, like those local courts, will bend facts, disregard contracts, and violate any Constitutional provision to justify their predetermined decision!

    To suggest one can get a contract enforced in Californis is like believing our govt is honest and follow the rule of law!

    Judges are not bound by law or the Constitution! Not in California!

    Thumb up 21 Thumb down 5

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