New York City Retirees Fight to Defend Their Medicare Benefits
New York City’s 250,000 retired municipal workers are facing the conversion of our traditional Medicare coverage to a privately managed Medicare Advantage plan.
It turns out that negotiations to achieve this change have been going on—in secret—for three years. The bargaining agent is the Municipal Labor Committee (MLC), which includes nearly 100 city unions.
Word of the negotiations leaked out in March, and union activists immediately started to organize a fight to protect our benefits.
Traditional Medicare pays 80 percent of health costs; patients must buy a supplemental policy to cover the 20 percent gap. For NYC retirees, the city pays for this supplement.
The threatened change would replace this system with a “managed care” program that covers both the 80 percent and the 20 percent: Medicare Advantage, created by Congress in 2003. A for-profit managed care company would control our access to health care.
This kind of plan is known for higher out-of-pocket costs, requiring pre-approval for many procedures, and often denying treatments to the sickest patients. We fear losing access to our current doctors.
GROUNDSWELL OF OPPOSITION
The Council of Municipal Retiree Organizations organized a petition, which has so far received almost 15,000 signatures.
The union of faculty and staff of the City University of New York system (Professional Staff Congress) unanimously passed a resolution at its April 15 Delegate Assembly calling for a moratorium on the plan.
When retired teacher activists learned what was going on, we approached the Retired Teachers Chapter of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT, the largest local of the AFT). The chair, Tom Murphy, reluctantly put the issue on the agenda of the chapter’s next meeting—only to provide a superficial explanation.
Our group, Retiree Advocate, a caucus of the retiree chapter, then organized a meeting to explain Medicare Advantage, plan our actions, and discuss how to coordinate with other unions. We had in mind a Zoom meeting of perhaps a couple dozen people—but we ended up with a webinar of more than 300!
Clearly our union leaders could no longer proceed in secret, so on May 5, UFT President Michael Mulgrew held a virtual “town meeting.” We were assured that the union was fighting for a plan that would be similar to our current plan in size and structure, and that would not reduce benefits.
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Since the purpose of this whole plan is to save the city money, and since private insurance companies exist in order to make money and they do this by reducing benefits, we did not swallow this.
TAX REAL ESTATE, NOT US
On May 24, Retiree Advocate held a rally and press conference outside of City Hall attended by 150 people including UFT retirees and representatives of DC 37. Speakers criticized Medicare Advantage and the injustice of our own union leaders collaborating with the city to force this on us. Why must the city’s savings come at our expense, rather than from taxing real estate or the finance industry?
“There were seven, eight options to save money [in a 2018 Memorandum of Understanding between the union and the city], and they decided to focus on the retirees,” said Norm Scott, a UFT retiree. “[Why don’t they] hit the real estate industry with a 1 percent tax, or a stock transfer tax? There are other ways to raise money.”
As for the city’s health costs, the real way to hold them down would be a single-payer system. Currently there is a bill in Albany for such a plan: the New York Health Act (S5474, A6058). It has the support of a majority of the members of the state legislature and a supermajority in the Assembly. The mayor and the city council have expressed their support.
But the leaders of our union (national and city) oppose it! They, along with many other unions, have lined up with Democratic Party centrists and Republicans in support of attempts to fix the flawed current system with its high costs, deductibles, and weak coverage.
In opposing the Medicare Advantage conversion and supporting universal health care, Retiree Advocate is fighting also for current workers. We are working for the kind of union that would have spent the past three years organizing its members to oppose these givebacks, instead of negotiating in secret.
Many of our members have been involved in rank-and-file efforts in opposition to the UFT’s governing Unity caucus for decades. We are currently running a slate of candidates in the Retired Teachers Caucus election.
As of this writing, an impasse has been announced in the negotiations between the city and the MLC, and it is being forwarded to a facilitator. The city still intends to implement the change this fall.
Retirees in the various unions continue to mobilize against being forced into Medicare Advantage. Even if we lose this particular battle, we will continue to agitate and build support for stopping further erosion of the health care plans for both retirees and working members.
Merry Tucker is a retired NYC public high school teacher and UFT member.