Flora Long and her husband currently pay about $4,900 a year for their health insurance, but as of July 1, they will be asked to pay $12,100 a year.
As a retired executive assistant to a school principal, Long said the 251 percent increase is simply unaffordable. “It’s incredulous to take on the group that’s the most vulnerable,” Long said before rejoining the picket line of about 50 other retired city and school workers outside City Hall Wednesday.
“This is not the City of Hartford I worked for,” Kathleen Collins, vice president of the Hartford Federation of Retired Teachers, said.
Collins said as a retired teacher she has the option to join the pool of retired state employees, however, many of the people she worked with like school paraprofessionals do not. She said for retired paraprofessionals that bring home a pension of about $20,000 a year, $12,000 a year for health insurance is too much.
Hartford Treasurer Kathleen Palm stood on the front steps of City Hall Wednesday and told the group of retirees, “I am so sorry this happened.” She said she did everything she could to stop it.
June Pinkin, president of the Hartford Federation of Retired Teachers, said there are some retired employees who will end up owing the city money because their pension benefits won’t cover the cost of their health insurance. “They balanced the budget on the backs of retirees,” she said.
A.J. DiStefano, a 57-year-old retired police officer said, if this increase goes through his health insurance costs will increase $6,000 a year. But, DiStefano said he’s one of the lucky ones because he’s still able to work part-time to help pay for the increase, whereas other older retirees can not. “It’s age discrimination,” he said.
In order to balance the budget this year the City of Hartford eliminated $2 million in retiree health benefits. The city also expanded the number of plans it offered to retirees, which caused some confusion due to what many felt was insufficient notice of the changes.
Earlier this week, Mayor Eddie Perez sent out a statement saying, “I am issuing a 30 day moratorium on implementation of new health insurance rates for city retirees. This does not include retirees of the Board of Education. This moratorium will allow us more time to further review and analyze data on the impact this change will have on city retirees and the city budget.”
Councilman Luis Cotto and Councilman Larry Deutsche, two Working Families Party members, are trying to extend the moratorium to 90-days to give the council more time to look at the budget and examine the situation for both city and school employees.
Palm said she doubts the situation can be rectified in 30-days. “There’s so many threads of confused stuff going on,” she said.
Hartford Senators John Fonfara and Eric Coleman said they are looking at the piece of legislation the state used when it bailed out the City of Waterbury from financial ruin. The City of Waterbury, for years, had failed to contribute to its pension fund and officials there began taking money from the funds principal to cover losses in it’s operating budget. By 2001, Waterbury effectively had no pension fund left and started paying retiree benefits out of its operating budget.
Fonfara said the Waterbury bail-out bill may apply to the situation in Hartford because it’s intent was “not to reduce the deficit on the backs of retired workers.”
“I kill myself every day to make sure there’s no shortfall in the pension fund,” Palm said. “This is not the way to treat people that gave years of their life to city government.”
Mayor Perez’s spokeswoman Sarah Barr said Wednesday that “Unlike the state, the City of Hartford fully funds its pension plan and employment retirement obligations.”
Coleman said he has legal reservations about the city’s decision to “unilaterally change the benefits of retirees.” But regardless of the legality, “it’s morally not okay,” he said. Both Coleman and Fonfara said they will be calling Mayor Perez today to ask him to re-examine the situation.
It’s estimated that there are about 4,400 retirees affected by the changes to the city’s health benefits.