MEA testimony at the City Council

Below is the testimony submitted to the City Council hearing on Retiree Healthcare Plan via Committee on Civil Service and Labor on October 28, 2021.

Stuart Eber, President, Council of Municipal Retiree Organizations and President Emeritus, NYC Managerial Employees Association

Edward Hysyk, Second Vice-Chair, Council of Municipal Retiree Organizations,  President, Retirees Association of DC37 and Past President Local 2627 of DC37

Good afternoon. I am Edward Hysyk, Second Vice-Chair, Council of Municipal Retiree Organizations, President, Retirees Association of District Council 37 representing well over 50,000 DC37 retirees and Past President Local 2627, DC 37— New York City Electronic Data Processing Personnel.

Stuart Eber, President, Council of Municipal Retiree Organizations and President Emeritus, NYC Managerial Employees Association is unable to join us today and asked me to share his gratitude to the chair and this committee for scheduling this hearing.

The Council of Municipal Retiree Organizations’ primary purpose is the advancement of the common interests of the 300,000 present and future retirees of agencies of the City of New York. These interests include the protection and enhancements of pensions and health benefits and federal, state, or municipal policies or budgets that will affect retirees including cuts to the social safety net.  Among the retiree associations represented on the  COMRO board are DC37, the United Federation of Teachers, TWU Local 100, CWA Local 1180,  the Council of School Administrators, the Professional Staff Congress, the Organization of Staff Analysts Retiree Chapter, the NYPD Retired Lieutenants Association, the Retired Members Association of the NYFD, the NYC Managerial Employees Association, ATU Local 1056,DOE Local 891, IBT Local 237 as well as the New York City and New York State Alliance for Retired Americans.

As Brooklyn Borough President and retired Police Captain Eric Adams recently said, “You don’t become a civil servant to become a billionaire. You become a civil servant to have stable health care, a stable pension and a stable life, and we cannot destabilize it after they retire. Right now, after serving your city, we should not do any type of bait and switch. When you retire, you retire with an understanding, and we need to make sure we live up to that agreement.”

We  collectively worked over seven million years for the City with the understanding that our health care rights would remain intact. It was a compact between us and the City in return for our services we would be guaranteed affordable, timely and comprehensive health care by our employer-the City of New York.

COMRO learned in February that the City in conjunction with the Municipal Labor Committee was in the process of awarding a highly lucrative contract to a major health insurance company to take over administering health insurance for over 240,000 Medicare eligible retirees effective this July 1. The City released a Notice Of Intent, not a Request For Proposal, and by February had eliminated two of the four responders.

We circulated a similarly worded petition on that has over 27,800 signatures. Immediately we heard and felt the anger and outrage of thousands of retirees about the negative impact that privatizing Medicare will have on us and our families. More costs, more confusion, more uncertainty.  Retirees have been thrown under the bus by  many of our union leaders who have rightfully defended union members against charter schools and contracting out civil service jobs. But privatizing retirees’ Medicare was falsely presented as an improvement!

Retirees had zero input. Nowhere in this process did the MLC  consult with the 240,000 retirees and their families to determine how it will help or harm us. The entire process was done behind closed doors in a hush-hush, rush-rush manner without consulting with the retiree organizations that represent these retirees.

Medicare Part B works very well for most of us. We contributed to Medicare during our years of employment with the tacit understanding that we will have the hard-earned entitlement when we turned 65. Now we are dependent on the kindness of strangers to maintain our health and wellbeing without additional cost. We are duly concerned that these types of managed care programs have a history of making it difficult to choose doctors and specialists by introducing bureaucratic hurdles. Prior authorization will be required for many services currently having no such barriers or delays. Certain hospitals do not accept patients’ Medicare Advantage plans.

The City and the MLC agreed in 2018 to save $3 billion in health  care costs because these costs are driven by the profits of private health insurance companies, Big Pharma and the corporate health provider world. Their collective answer to stem the bleeding from for-profit private health care was to privatize Medicare to save $500 million!

On April 19, 2021, COMRO President Stu Eber sent a letter to Municipal Labor Committee Chair Harry Nespoli (Attachment 1) requesting that I be appointed to the MLC Steering Committee, citing my ability “to speak as both a user of the benefits and a responsible labor leader within DC37 and COMRO.”

Greenberg Burzichelli Greenberg P.C. responded as MLC’s representative (Attachment 2). “…COMRO is neither a certified employee organization nor a member of the MLC; therefore, COMRO is not eligible for representation on the MLC Steering Committee.”

This is law firm speak for, “You’re retired. Just shut up and dribble.” And our union leaders smugly echoed those sentiments in their closed meetings.

Several retiree chapters, including the Retirees Association of DC37, the Professional Staff Congress and the NYC Managerial Employees Association, passed resolutions calling for a moratorium on the City’s and MLC’s actions. The Professional Staff Congress Delegate Assembly passed the following resolution 115-0: “The DA supports the Retirees’ Chapter call for a moratorium on any agreement between New York City and the Municipal Labor Committee (MLC) to move retiree healthcare coverage from traditional Medicare to Medicare Advantage and asks that the PSC bring the moratorium call to the MLC.”

The MEA Executive Board passed a similar resolution on May 18.

COMRO sent a June 9, 2021, letter (Attachment III) to Office of Labor Relations Commissioner Rene Campion, MLC Chairperson Harry Nespoli and Martin Scheinman, an arbitrator who was agreed upon by the City and MLC to help resolve the differences they were having choosing between the two finalists, Aetna and Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield/Emblem Health. Once again, we reiterated that retirees did not have enough time or information to evaluate the two proposals so we could have our detailed questions answered and know that the contract would not diminish our health care benefits.

I represent over 30,000 DC37 retirees, a predominately female and non-white constituency. As Past President of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1056,  your Committee Chair I. Daneek Miller knows how little many DC37 retirees receive. The average pension for my members is $22,000. Thousands of DC37 retirees have pensions below $15,000 a year. The average Social Security benefit in America is $16,000 a year. Many of my members receive less than $10,000 a year. If they want to opt out of Medicare Advantage Plus and remain in GHI/Senior Care, it will cost them $195 a month, about 10% of their combined pensions and Social Security.

When Mayor de Blasio and many of you assumed office eight years ago, you were committed to closing the yawning gap known as our modern “Tale of Two Cities.” Forcing thousands of dedicated City employees with low income to choose between an untested Medicare Advantage plan and paying for their GHI/Senior Care will only exacerbate the disparities between our fellow New Yorkers.

Immediately after the MLC approved the self-proclaimed “unique, first time ever, NYC Medicare Advantage Plus”, the vendor and the City began to implement an ill-conceived rollout plan. Retirees  do not receive the  booklets about the new plan. The Alliance Call Center provides inconsistent answers. When we speak to our physicians and their staff, they are unaware of any changes. A significant percentage of NYC retirees no longer live in the NYC metropolitan area and it is not clear how many doctors and hospitals in other parts of the country will participate in the Medicare Advantage plan. We are justified in being scared and confused about our health care when our providers do not know what we are talking about.

Both Stu Eber and I worked on several large computer program changes for the Human Resources Administration during our combined sixty years in the agency. Virtually all required several years to properly complete extensive systems design and testing, staff training and client/customer education as well as pilot projects and staggered rollouts.. This included the conversion from PPO Medicaid to the HMO system required by the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, the New York State Welfare Management System and the SNAP electronic benefits system. There is no pilot stage to the Medicare Advantage Plus plan’s massive changes, nor an intense education campaign for the 800,000 Medicare providers, only a switch to be flipped on January 1 leaving both patients and providers relying on good intentions. If this MAP plan is approved despite retirees’ objections, there must be a more comprehensive planning for the conversion. Our proposal can be reviewed in Attachment IV.

Finally, this contract has never seen the light of day at a public hearing. The Mayor’s Office of Contracts has not scheduled the usual hearing. When asked when it will be scheduled, we were referred to the Office of Labor Relations. We still have not seen a date for this public hearing.

The lack of transparency in the rush to change this program is both insulting and frightening to those of us who have collectively worked millions of years serving the people of New York City. How can we trust our health to a backroom deal based on the dubious assumption that it will save the City  $500,000,000 a year with no diminution of health benefits and services to 240,000 of us? When something is too good to be true, it is too good to be true.

We call upon you, the City Council, to monitor the Medicare Advantage Plus plan with the same vigor and attention that you have provided to all City programs that affect the health and safety of New Yorkers. Anything you can do today to protect thousands of retirees’ current health insurance plans and health care provider networks amidst the confusion caused by this deal will be appreciated by us and our families and friends.

We want to take this opportunity to thank the thousands of retirees who have united to protect our hard-earned Medicare benefits. Let’s resolve to maintain this energy to fight for universal healthcare, economic and environmental justice as well as free and fair elections.

I welcome your questions, and again on behalf of COMRO President Stu Eber and myself thank you for this opportunity.