Retired teachers were upset Thursday when they heard Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s Budget Director Ben Barnes explain why the governor decided to cut $7.6 million in funding from their health insurance fund.

Barnes told the Appropriations Committee that cutting the state’s contribution allowed the administration to spend more money on K-12 education and other state employees’ pensions.

“We believed we were not in a position to fund the level of growth that was in this program,” Barnes said. “We took this step in order to fund other parts of the budget, in particular our obligations to the state’s retirees as well as our initiatives in the area of K-12 education.”

The cut will increase retired teachers’ premiums by about $35 per, month per teacher. Many are already paying between $500 to $1,000 per month for their insurance and many according to the Association of Retired Teachers live on very modest pensions. The $110 per month they receive from the fund helps defray the cost of their insurance.

“We felt it was a moderate increase and one that would ensure the long term health of the program,” Barnes said. “I don’t have an answer that will satisfy those upset about paying an increased premium.” 

Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, told Barnes it will probably be “singularly disappointing to them that part of the rationale for this is to continue to fund the retirement of other state employees.”

The hearing room packed with retired teachers erupted with applause at Lavielle‘s statement.

Lavielle said these were people already on fixed incomes, many of whom do not receive Social Security or Medicare benefits as teachers.

“None of these people can afford an increase,” Cathy D’Agostino, co-chairwoman of the Association of Retired Teachers, told the committee. “Teachers did try to plan for their health insurance by paying into the fund during their working years and they now pay for their insurance. It’s not for free.”

About one-third of the $110 teachers receive per month comes from the state, one-third is paid by the retiree, and one-third is paid by active teachers. She said for the state to cutback its commitment now is troublesome since it didn’t contribute to the account for two years, costing the fund $60 million.

Two years ago, retired teachers had to worry about the solvency of the fund.

“Aside from the funds and the confusion of the different retirees I just want to impress upon you that this section of this bill affects real people,” D’Agostino said. “And it affects retirees, some of our most needy people.”

Sandra Bove, a retired math teacher and co-chairwoman of the Association of Retired Teachers, said she too doesn’t understand Barnes’ rationale.

“I don’t understand the rationale of a proposed decrease in the state’s already small contribution to retired teachers’ health costs when overall state spending is being increased,” Bove said.

In a year when education reform is at the top of the agenda, she said this is just another reason for the best and brightest educators to practice their profession elsewhere.

Roz Schoonmaker, a member of the Teachers’ Retirement Board, said the subsidy the state currently pays is a lifeline to retired teachers.

Without it the 81-year-old said she will be faced with tough choices such as buying her prescriptions or heating her home.

“I beg you vote against this increase,” Schoonmaker said.

This is the only government sponsored plan available to retired teachers unless they have a spouse who qualifies for Medicare.

Capitol insiders were baffled at the decision to cut funding to a group of retired teachers who live on fixed incomes and have nothing but time on their hands to lobby lawmakers.