Legislators wary but hopeful on health benefit changes
SPRINGFIELD — Although many retired state employees are fearful about upcoming changes in their health care benefits, state officials and lawmakers attempted to quell those concerns Monday.
The state Department of Central Management Services estimates that the state government can save $108 million by switching to a Medicare Advantage plan for Medicare-eligible retirees sometime in early 2014.
"We are concerned that the Medicare Advantage program, which rightfully indicates a savings and I believe there would be a savings, but it's the savings that is driving the program, not necessarily the care and certainly not the options that would be available to those that have to receive that care," said Tom Ryder, a former state representative and a lobbyist for an association of retired state employees.
Ryder and others urged the state to give retired employees as many optional health care programs as possible.
"The retirees do not care for change. They would like things to remain consistent but that's not possible in our state's economic circumstance," he said. "The result is we simply ask for options."
Linda Brookhart, executive director of the State Universities Annuitants Association, said a switch to only a state-sponsored Medicare Advantage plan "would cause much confusion and additional loss of trust" in state government.
But state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, D-Des Plaines, said lawmakers have to look for ways to save money.
"We can't continue to just say no to every change because it's going to impact somebody in some way that they don't quite understand," she said. "These are the kinds of things we have to continue to explore. Allowing people to opt out so that we don't achieve the savings that is suggested with the Medicare Advantage plan to me is not an option. We have to find savings and we have to make changes to these programs in order to get ourselves current and get ourselves out of this mess."
Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, suggested that retirees won't see any benefit changes.
"The plan design is set by contract. It's the same," he said. "The (request for proposals) has to be what has been negotiated. So the coverages, what the copays are, the deductibles, that's already been set."
Monday's hearing was before the Legislature's Commission on Goverment Forecasting and Accontability. Two local state senators, Mike Frerichs of Champaign and Chapin Rose of Mahomet, attended the meeting.
Both said they remain skeptical because of mistakes the department made two years ago when it had to rebid health care coverage contracts for state employees, retirees and dependents. But they said they were encouraged by what they heard Monday.
"It appears on the front end that there will be significant taxpayer savings to this," said Rose. "Based on what happened two years ago I have to be fairly leery of giving them free rein here. But if in fact choice of provider is allowed, that was the big objection two years ago. Here it looks like you can save a significant amount of money and still allow people to see their own doctor.
"If (retiree) payments aren't going above what's been agreed to by (Gov. Pat) Quinn and AFSCME and you get to keep your doctor and the taxpayers save money, I say why not?"
Added Frerichs, "I think there is a lot of distrust of the state of Illinois' handling of retiree group health care because of things that happened a couple of years ago. It is my big concern that our retirees have access to good health insurance and that we can save the state money. CMS is saying we can accomplish those things but that's why we had the hearing today. I think there are still followup questions that will need to be asked and answered."