Delaware retirees protest switch to Medicare Advantage plan

Bay to Bay News | by Joseph Edelen

More than 50 state retirees, legislators and other Delawareans against the state’s move to a Medicare Advantage Plan rallied against the change in the Louis L. Redding City-County Council Chambers Tuesday.

The rally was led by Retirees Investing in Social Equity Delaware, also known as RISE Delaware. The organization, formed by retiring Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark, and New Castle County Councilwoman Lisa Diller, has led the fight against the change for retirees since late August.

On Sept. 25, RISE Delaware and former state Sen. Karen Peterson filed suit against the state and State Employee Benefits Committee co-chairs Claire DeMatteis and Cerron Cade in Delaware Superior Court over the change. The lawsuit aims to halt the state’s implementation of the new Medicare Advantage Plan, which is set to take effect Jan. 1, 2023.

Although rain moved the rally inside, many protesters brought picket signs to express their dissatisfaction with the move and the state’s process of approving the switch. One sign read, “We served the state… The state is now failing to serve us!” Another sign read, “We are not dead yet! And we vote.” Just before the start of the rally, attendees erupted into a chant of “We’re not dead yet!”

Rep. Kowalko kicked off the rally, stating that retirees in attendance were against the privatization of Medicare and refuted Delaware Department of Human Resources Secretary DeMatteis’ claim that the change was not a privatization. He called out Director of the Office of Management and Budget Cade’s “fabrication” of abuse tolerated in the current Medicare coverage for state retirees, adding that retirees rejected Mr. Cade’s “fanciful imaginings of sick and suffering retirees, in need of immediate medical care, who are merely trying to game the current system.”

Many took issue with the Delaware Pensions Office’s July newsletter notifying pensioners of the change, including Ms. Peterson, who said the letter was filled with falsities.

“We will not get the same benefits, we will not get the same provider network and we will not have the same out-of pocket-costs, which for us, right now, is zero,” Ms. Peterson said.

She said she decided to join RISE Delaware after learning more about Medicare Advantage Plans.

“These are terrible for older people, because there is troubling evidence that Medicare Advantage denies and delays necessary medical treatment. That’s scary,” she said. “We can’t let this happen. We tried to talk to the state about it and they just didn’t want to hear it. They said it was a done deal and we could take a hike, and we thought, maybe we won’t take a hike. Maybe we’ll file a lawsuit to try and stop it.”

She took issue with the recently released contract between the state and Highmark for the plan, which showed that prior authorization would be required for 2,030 prescription drugs and procedures.

As Karen Schilling Ross, a retired teacher who taught for 27-years at Shortlidge Elementary School in Wilmington, stood in the back of the council chambers, she called on retirees to reach out to their federally elected officials, U.S. Sens. Chris Coons and Tom Carper and U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, stating “they can’t be let off the hook.”

Ms. Ross said she and her husband reached out to state legislators, including their own, Sen. Nicole Poore, D-New Castle, and Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, D-New Castle, but only heard back from Rep. Kowalko and Rep. Mike Ramone, R-Newark.

“We just haven’t heard a peep from either one of our legislators about the change. I don’t buy this baloney, ‘Oh, we didn’t know.’ Well now you do now. What are you doing about it?” Ms. Ross said. “Gov. Carney, when your term is up, you can forget being [U.S.] senator.”

The response from legislators is something that Rep. Kowalko said he was “more than disappointed” in. Despite invitations to all legislators, he was the only sitting official in attendance. However, he did commend a handful of legislators for their interest and commitment to the fight, including Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton, D-Newark; Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover; and Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel.

At the rally, Rep. Kowalko’s wife, Connie Merlet, also spoke. A daycare worker, Ms. Merlet does not have a retirement plan and like thousands of Delawareans, she will receive her health care coverage through her spouse. She provided various quotes from Secretary DeMatteis and Mr. Cade regarding the switch that contradicted the realities of the change in health care.

“How are we to believe these people? Do they not understand? Or are they deliberately lying? Either way, why are they running these departments?” Ms. Merlet said.

Briefs and affidavits for Sen. Peterson and RISE Delaware’s lawsuit against the state were due Tuesday at 5 p.m., and a hearing is scheduled for Oct. 17, according to Sen. Peterson. An expedited hearing for the case was requested by the plaintiffs due to the state’s Oct. 3 to Oct. 24 Medicare Open Enrollment period.

RISE Delaware is aiming to raise $150,000 through a GoFundMe to pay for the expenses of the suit, which is being litigated in part by the same attorneys who won a similar case for retirees in New York City earlier this year. Ms. Diller said while the effort to inform state retirees has been largely through networking, the response has been “really great.”

“For the lawsuit, it’s been a ride. We’ve all come together to fund raise, and it’s been great. We’re pedaling as fast as we can. The state has lots of money, lots of staff, unlimited mailing. We’re working with GMail,” Ms. Diller said. “It’s kind of like a David versus Goliath sort of thing, right?”

RISE Delaware has a second rally scheduled for Oct. 12 at noon at Legislative Hall in Dover.

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