September 23, 2021

School district directed to resume reimbursing its retirees' Medicare Part B surcharges

Pursuant to collective bargaining agreements [CBAs] between the School District [District] and the Congress of Teacher [Congress], an association representing district employees, the District agreed to provide health care benefits for active and retired employees and their spouses and dependents. 

Retired employees over age 65, however, were required to enroll in a Medicare Part B program [Part B] and the district reimbursed retirees the cost of Part B coverage.

Some retirees, based upon their household income, were subject to a surcharge in addition to the standard Part B premium. This surcharge was an income-related monthly adjustment amount and referred to as the "IRMAA". Prior to August 2018, the district reimbursed retirees for IRMAA surcharges in addition to their standard Medicare premium payments.

In response to the District's informing retirees that it would no longer reimburse them for IRMAA surcharges, certain retirees [Plaintiffs] commenced a CPLR article 78 proceeding seeking [1] a court order annulling the District's decision, contending that the District's discontinuing such reimbursements violated Chapter 729 of the Laws of 1994 (as amended by Chapter 22 of the Laws of 2007), the State's Retiree Health Insurance Moratorium Act [Act]* and [2] a court order reinstating the reimbursements.

The Supreme Court agreed that the District's discontinuation of its reimbursements of IRMAA surcharges violated the Act, granted the Plaintiff's petition, and directed the District to reinstate providing the reimbursement, plus making appropriate retroactive reimbursements. The District appealed.

Explaining that Act sets "a minimum baseline or 'floor' for retiree health benefits" which is "measured by the health benefits being received by active employees," the Appellate Division sustained the lower court's ruling. In other words, the Act does not permit an employer to whom the statute applies to provide its retirees with lesser health insurance benefits than it provides its active employees.

Citing Matter of Baker v Board of Educ., 29 AD3d 574, the Appellate Division opined that a school district may not diminish retirees' health insurance benefits unless it makes "a corresponding diminution in the health insurance benefits or contributions of active employees." 

In the words of the court, the purpose of the Act was to protect the rights of retirees who "are not represented in the collective bargaining process, [and] are powerless to stop unilateral depreciation or even elimination of health insurance benefits once the contract under which they retired has expired"**

It was undisputed both that the CBAs between the District and the Association did not address Part B or IRMAA reimbursements and that the district provided such reimbursements, even if, as it claims, it made such reimbursements inconsistently. 

The parties, said the court, conceded that the reimbursements were "retiree health insurance benefits that were voluntarily conferred as a matter of school district policy." Accordingly, the Appellate Division held that Supreme Court "correctly concluded that the discontinuation of IRMAA reimbursements was a matter subject to the moratorium statute."

Additionally, the Appellate Division noted reimbursing retirees for Medicare Part B premiums is not an improper gift of public funds in violation of Article VIII, §1, of the New York State Constitution," citing Baker v Board of Education, 29 AD3d 574.

The Appellate Division sustained the Supreme Court ruling, finding it to have correctly determined that the District's discontinuation of IRMAA reimbursements violated the Act and thus had properly granted the Plaintiffs' petition.

* The purpose of the moratorium statute was to tie retiree benefits to active employee benefits so that retirees could benefit from the collective bargaining power of the active employees.

** See Matter of Bryant v Board of Educ., Chenango Forks Cent. School Dist., 21 AD3d 1134, quoting Assembly Memorandum in Support of Bill, 1996 McKinney's Session Laws of New York at 2050.

Click HERE to access the Appellate Division's decision.

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