Bill to increase retiree voice in health care talks passes Delaware Senate

Bay to Bay News | by Joseph Edelen

Amid continued concern from state retirees, Senate lawmakers voted to establish pensioner involvement in the development of retirement health care benefits on Wednesday.

Prime sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, Senate Bill 29 seeks to bolster state retiree involvement in the decision-making process ahead of the expiration of the current Medicare supplement plan offered through Jan. 1, 2024.

The legislation features co-sponsorship from each member of Democratic and Republican leadership in both houses of Delaware’s General Assembly.

Under SB 29, membership of the Statewide Employee Benefits Committee would be expanded to include a state retiree and an additional representative from public sector union organizations.

The legislation establishes the Retiree Healthcare Advisory Subcommittee of the State Employee Benefits Committee, which would be responsible for holding public meetings and making recommendations to the governor and General Assembly by May 1.

The subcommittee would be comprised of a state retiree from each county and four members of the General Assembly from each caucus of the House and Senate.

Additionally, the bill requires the controller general to provide public reports regarding the committee’s work twice a year to the General Assembly.
Though some retirees expressed their unease with the May 1 report date, Sen. Townsend assured the date was set to account for budget discussions for the upcoming fiscal year and that the subcommittee would continue work beyond the date if needed.

“I do think there’s a shared commitment to having a process that enables people to feel a whole lot more confident along the way and have more ensured participation as well,” Sen. Townsend said.

An amendment was successfully placed with the bill requiring members of the State Employee Benefits Committee to attend meetings without a designee and require the subcommittee to “evaluate options that would allow state retirees to maintain their current coverage, similar to residents in other states that offer a choice to buy into a Medicare supplement plan.”

Wednesday’s committee meeting was attended by more than 40 state retirees, many of whom are involved in Retirees Investing in Social Equity (RISE) Delaware, the group of retirees who successfully delayed the state’s implementation of the Medicare Advantage plan with a lawsuit in Delaware Superior Court last fall.

Many retirees, including former state Sen. Karen Peterson, cited their discomfort with the bill due to a lack of communication during the state’s original move to Medicare Advantage.

Ms. Peterson said the committee was comprised of the same people “hell-bent on shoving Medicare Advantage down our throats,” and state retirees’ “seat at the table” through SB 29 was “more like a couple of deck chairs on the Titanic.”

“This bill attempts to placate us, to keep us busy and to distract us while this administration works to ram the Medicare Advantage plan yet again,” Ms. Peterson said.

Former state Representative and RISE Delaware co-director John Kowalko said the legislation “legitimizes the process that the SEBC did to come up with the Medicare Advantage proposal” and that his organization’s “main concern is that we have an option for a Medicare supplement plan.”

“I think it opens doors to not only condone the lies that were spread before, but also to allow the SEBC to say, ‘Oh, we’re complying with the judge’s edict,’ when in fact, all they’re doing is just grabbing that year’s respite and are going to come up with something else to force feed the retirees,” Mr. Kowalko said.

Prior to adjournment, members of the Senate Executive Committee attempted to alleviate the concerns of retirees in attendance, emphasizing their commitment and the intent for the subcommittee to continue its work should a report not be available by May 1.

“If it’s possible by May 1, 2023, to come up with a global solution that meets a framework that works for everyone, that would be wonderful,” Sen. Townsend said.

“I think we do serve our state retirees and our entire state best if we figure this out as quickly as we can.”

The sentiment was echoed by Senate Executive Committee member Sen. Marie Pinkney, D-Bear, who added that while she understands retirees’ fears regarding the legislature’s commitment, she and her colleagues remain focused on providing state retirees a solution.

“We are listening to you and we care about everything that you’ve said and that you have presented to us. This legislation is not where we stop this work,” Sen. Pinkney said.

“Every one of us is incredibly committed to making sure that whatever happens at the end of this is in the best interests of the people we represent.”
Following the bill’s release from committee, it was immediately placed on the Senate agenda for Wednesday afternoon.

One lawmaker, Sen. Eric Buckson, R-Camden, voiced his hesitance in supporting the bill due to the committee meeting’s public comment time limit and quick path through the legislative process.

“I think we’ve acknowledged that the process is what got us here, and I think that today’s actions, respectfully stated, are a continuance of the process,” Sen. Buckson said.

“I’m challenged by the thought of a committee meeting, followed immediately by an up and down vote when speed or time is not of the essence. I understood the May 1 (date), but I also recognize there were many folks that showed up today that had value in their conversation and deserve the opportunity to speak in committee.”

Despite Sen. Buckson’s remarks, Sen. Townsend reiterated that SB 29 was designed for a more public and transparent decision-making process with the involvement of Delaware’s retirees.

“I think the most important thing about having retirees be able to weigh in on the process is to create a public transparent subcommittee on which they have seats,” Sen. Townsend said, “(and) in which additional members are able to make comments during the public comment portion of public meetings and begin that really key step of figuring out what the next iteration of retiree health care is going to look like.”

SB 29 with Senate Amendment 1 successfully passed by a vote of 17 for, one against and one absent.

The bill will now head to the House for consideration and is expected to be heard early next week.

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