County legislators vote in favor of changes to retiree insurance

Cortland County office building. (Photo Source: Kevin L. Smith/Cortland Voice)

The Cortland County Legislature voted 10-6 to change the healthcare plan of retired county workers to a Medicare Advantage plan on Thursday.

The measure was widely opposed by some retirees.

Several members of the public, including some retired county workers, noted they were uncertain about the changes the plan would bring. Some blasted the county for rushing the decision to switch to Medicare Advantage, noting they had worked for years contributing to their original Medicare benefit thinking that is the plan they’d receive once they retired.

The measure was seen by some county department heads and legislators as one that would save costs going into a tighter financial period. Officials estimate the county could save up to $800,000 a year under the Advantage plan, which is a private insurance product. 

The county’s plan will start next year and will be run by UnitedHealthcare. Costs to current workers and retirees will go up by 10% when the new Advantage plan takes effect.

The Cortland Voice previously reported on the potential benefit switch. It can be viewed by clicking here.

Donna Johnson, a retired administrative assistant at the county, said Thursday she doubted legislators and insurance administrators could guarantee providers would stay within retirees’ networks. Seeking out-of-network care under private insurance and Medicare Advantage usually comes with extra fees. 

The prospect of out-of-network fees is not present with original Medicare, the Medicare website states.

“On July 17 of this year, I attended the retiree health insurance program presentation by UnitedHealthcare…in this very room. This plan is for retirees only, who are on Medicare,” Johnson said. “The Medicare card will no longer be used for this program, which will be mandated to retirees without a choice to stay on the plan, which I am willing to pay for.”

“For the past two years as a retiree, I've been thankful that I worked for Cortland County,” Johnson said, urging legislators to vote no on the measure. “Not so much for the last month. I hope and pray that after this meeting, I'll be honored, respected and thankful once again.”

Whitney Meeker, the former county coroner, said some retirees did not have a say in changing to the new plan.

“Let me start out by saying: better the devil, you know, than the one you don't know,” Meeker said. “This plan was not passed by any of us. We had no say on what was going on and we've been told it was being worked on for over a year. Are you all sneaking around? What are you trying to do? You're trying to save money on the backs of your retirees. You should be ashamed.”

Following comments from retirees, legislator Sandy Price (D-LD-14) proposed a motion to postpone the vote until questions brought up by retired workers could be addressed. That motion was defeated 10-6. 

Price also brought in an amendment to the resolution to adopt the plan, attempting to give retirees the option to decide if they want to keep their current plan or switch to Medicare Advantage. That motion was defeated 10-6, but county administrator Rob Corpora and consultant Bill Brothers said the plan would have to cover all retired employees without exception or chance to opt out.

Legislator Ann Homer (D-LD-3) said the move to a new plan seemed rushed.

“This seems to be fast-tracked,” she said. “Some of our retirees were under the impression that we were all aware of this move. The first I became aware of anything was when I got the same letter that went out to the retirees. I have spent hours doing research, but I don't think we need to rush this at all.”

Legislators called on personnel officer Laurie Leonard, and Brothers to tell retirees whether the Advantage Plan. Both responded, noting they felt the Advantage plan was equal or better than the current benefits.

The county will have 90 days to decide whether to enroll or opt out of the plan, Brothers said.