Retiree health insurance benefits
Aeneas McDonald PBA v City of Geneva, App. Div., 245 A.D.2d 1042, Affirmed, 92 N.Y.2d 326
The elimination or modification of a public retiree’s health insurance coverage by a former employer has been the subject of a number of recent litigations. The latest rulings suggest that the resolution of the issue will turn on whether or not the retirees have a contractual right to such benefits.
For instance, in the Della Rocco v. City of Schenectady and Andriano v. City of Schenectady cases, decided August 28, 1997, New York State Supreme Court Justice Robert E. Lynch wrote that City of Schenectady police and fire department retirees were entitled to fully paid health insurance comparable to that in effect at the time of each retiree’s retirement because the benefits had been negotiated and set out in a Taylor Law agreement. Justice Lynch ruled that it was not relevant that the particular Taylor Law agreement under which the individual retired was no longer operative.
The Appellate Division recently applied the same reasoning in a suit filed by the Aeneas McDonald Police Benevolent Association, Inc., whose members include all current and retired members of the Geneva Police Department. The PBA sued to annul the City’s decision to unilaterally change the health insurance plan it provided for its retired police officers.
In a split decision, the Appellate Division ruled that the City of Geneva could change the health insurance it provided its retired police officers because the retirees’ health insurance coverage benefits were not protected by the terms of a collective bargaining agreement, either currently operative or expired.
The background: In 1972 the City adopted a resolution, Resolution 33, providing for the payment of health insurance benefits to retired City employees. The City simultaneously discontinued its membership in the State’s Employees’ Health Plan, electing to provide coverage through the Genesee Valley Medical Health Care Plan. Later the City replaced the Genesee Plan with the Blue Million Health Plan.
The City told its retirees that they would be covered by the Blue Million Health Plan until December 31, 1996, and that effective January 1, 1997 their coverage would be changed to the Blue Choice Extended Plan. The union sued. What proved to be critical in determining the rights of Geneva’s retired police officers was the fact that the City’s retirees’ benefits were being provided pursuant to a resolution adopted by the City rather than under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement.
Although New York State Supreme Court Justice Harvey held that Geneva’s decision to change the health insurance benefits of retirees violated the parties’ past practice of providing a certain level of benefits to retirees, the Appellate Division ruled that this was incorrect.
The Appellate Division pointed out that none of the previous collective bargaining agreements between the City and the bargaining units that represent active police officers addressed the issue of health insurance benefits for retired police officers. Consequently, said the Court, the union’s retired members “are not now nor have they at any time in the past been beneficiaries of a negotiated labor agreement that provides health insurance benefits during the period of their retirement.”
In contrast to the situation in the Schenectady case, the Court concluded in the Geneva case that (1) the retired union members never had any contractual rights with respect to health insurance benefits during retirement and (2) Resolution No. 33 did not give the retirees any vested rights to any particular health insurance benefits during retirement. In other words, unless the provision is deemed a “contractual” obligation, a legislative body may amend, or repeal, a law, rule, regulation, ordinance or resolution changing health insurance benefits for retirees. In addition, the Appellate Division said that the City was not required to negotiate its unilateral change in the health insurance benefits it provided its retirees and dismissed the union’s petition.
What about the State Constitution’s prohibition against “diminishing or impairing” a retirement benefit? The simple answer is that health insurance benefits are not “retirement benefits” within the meaning of the State’s Constitution. Unless there is some “contractual right” to health insurance benefits in retirement, the employer may unilaterally change the plan, contribution rates or other elements of a retiree’s health insurance.
The leading case involving this issue is Lippman v Sewanhaka Central High School District, 66 NY2d 313. The Court of Appeals said that a school board could change the rates of its employer contributions for retiree health insurance premiums that had been adopted pursuant to an earlier school board resolution where “the retirees had no contractual right” to the continuation of those contributions.
Those involved in the public schools or BOCES should note that school retirees have special rights. Under temporary legislation, state law requires school districts and BOCES to provide their respective retirees with the same health insurance benefits that they provide for their active employees [Chapter 80 of the Laws of 1997 extended Chapter 729 of the Laws of 1994 for one additional year]. Retirees of other municipal employers are seeking similar legislative protection against changes in their health insurance coverage by their former employers.
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