All's Fair in Love and Politics When Excellent Health Insurance Is the Prize

Friday, October 24, 2014

I wonder how many persons on the public payroll in Massachusetts have done what Peter Mortimer has.

Mortimer’s an attorney and longtime member of the Board of Aldermen in the City of Melrose, where I reside.    A sincere and amiable fellow, he works diligently at the part-time job of Ward Six alderman, a position that comes with a second-rate salary of $5,000 a year and a first-rate health plan.
As related in an article in the latest edition of the Melrose Free Press, (“Alderman explains retirement,” 10-23-14), Mortimer, age 58, was concerned that a bill filed in the Massachusetts legislature in early 2013 would threaten his eligibility for lifetime health coverage through the state’s Group Insurance Commission.  He was so concerned that he quietly arranged to “retire” from the Board of Aldermen before House Bill 59, An Act Providing Retiree Healthcare Benefits Reform, could become law.  He applied to retire in December, 2013 and his application was approved some six months later, retroactive to the date he had applied, according to the Melrose Free Press.

If you think Mortimer became a former alderman when he retired, you can be forgiven.  This is kind of a confusing situation.
Mortimer, you see, was re-elected to the board in November, 2013 and sworn in to a new term in January of this year, said term running through December, 2015. Between being re-elected and beginning a new term, Mortimer briefly retired, as he was allowed by law to do.  And because he had been on a public payroll for at least 10 years as of his “retirement date,” Mortimer preserved his right to obtain health coverage through the state for the rest of his life.  He also preserved his wife’s right to the same.

During the entire time Mortimer was working out his retirement, House Bill 59 was pending on Beacon Hill.  One of its main provisions was a 100% increase in the minimum number of years someone on a public payroll would have to serve, from 10 to 20, before becoming eligible for health coverage in retirement.
Mortimer need not have worried. 

House Bill 59, which had been filed by Governor Deval Patrick in the House on February 12, 2013, never gained traction in the legislature.  On July 31 of this year, the Joint Committee on Public Service sent the bill to “study,” a legislative euphemism for trash bin.
As a public retiree, Mortimer is collecting the normal salary of a Melrose alderman and his monthly retirement benefit of $78.15, the Melrose Free Press reported, although he has directed his pension checks to an account to be used solely for charitable donations.

“I would never take both (an aldermanic pension and an aldermanic salary),” Mortimer was quoted as saying.
The law allows Mortimer the public retiree to make up to $15,000 a year as Mortimer the public employee, as well as any additional amount in the private sector.  There’s no limit to what he can make in the law, his chosen profession, for example.

When House Bill 59 was heard by the Joint Committee on Public Service on October 31, 2013, the hearing room, Gardner Auditorium, the largest such space in the State House, was “packed with municipal workers, corrections officers and labor union groups opposing the legislation,” according to the State House News Service account of the proceedings, (“Patrick’s Retiree Health Care Bill Met with Backlash from Workers,” 10-31-13).
Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, testified in favor of the bill, saying, in part, “Without any reform, retiree health care is projected to cost municipalities more than $1 billion within five years and nearly $1.5 billion in 10 years.”

According to Widmer, cities and towns spent about $800 million on health care for retirees in Fiscal Year 2012, an amount equal to nearly 90% of the $899 million granted by the state to municipalities in unrestricted aid.
Among those testifying against House Bill 59 was Ebba Hierta, the director of the public library in the town of Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard.  If the bill passed, she said, it would not make sense for her to continue working in the public sector.

Hierta, age 59, told the committee she had left the private sector for a job in the public sector because of the promise of health care security in retirement.  “That promise was made to me when I took my job.  It’s just patently wrong to pull the rug out from under people who are nearing retirement,” she was quoted as testifying. 
It would seem that Alderman Mortimer agrees with Library Director Hierta on that point.

“The purpose of this (retiring in December, 2013) is to prevent something that I’ve already earned being taken away from my family,” he told the Melrose Free Press.

Mortimer pointed out that he, personally, has not heard complaints from Melrosians about his retirement happening on a track parallel to his continued service as an alderman.
“People who know me, people who vote for me, said what I did is completely reasonable,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.  “There may be a handful of people out there who object, (but) everyone who’s talked to me, when they understand what the situation was, said, ‘I would have done the same thing.’ ”

Completely. Reasonable. 
Mortimer touched on a point that’s larger even than he probably realizes: Most people in Massachusetts would love the opportunity to obtain health coverage in retirement that is as high in quality and as attractive in price as that offered through the Group Insurance Commission (GIC).

Most of us will never have that opportunity, even as most of us are obligated to support the mission of the GIC through the taxes we pay.
Maybe just a handful of people in Melrose think like I do, but what the hell.  The way the world goes round today, I think, the public servants serve the public and the public serves the servants.


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