Detroit Looks to Health Law to Ease Costs
As Detroit enters the federal bankruptcy process, the city is proposing a controversial plan for paring some of the $5.7 billion it owes in retiree health costs: pushing many of those too young to qualify for Medicare out of city-run coverage and into the new insurance markets that will soon be operating under the Obama health care law.
Fabrizio Costantini for The New York Times
Detroit wants insurance exchanges to cover retirees like Thomas Berry, a former police officer. Officials say the plan would be part of a broader effort to save Detroit tens of millions of dollars in health costs each year, a major element in a restructuring package that must be approved by a bankruptcy judge. It is being watched closely by municipal leaders around the nation, many of whom complain of mounting, unsustainable prices for the health care promised to retired city workers.
Officials say the plan would be part of a broader effort to save Detroit tens of millions of dollars in health costs each year, a major element in a restructuring package that must be approved by a bankruptcy judge. It is being watched closely by municipal leaders around the nation, many of whom complain of mounting, unsustainable prices for the health care promised to retired city workers.
Similar proposals that could shift public sector retirees into the new insurance markets, called exchanges, are already being planned or contemplated in places like Chicago; Sheboygan County, Wis.; and Stockton, Calif. While large employers that eliminate health benefits for full-time workers can be penalized under the health care law, retirees are a different matter.
“There’s fear and panic about what this means,” said Michael Underwood, 62, who retired from the Chicago Police Department after 30 years and has diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. Mr. Underwood, who says he began working for the city when employees did not pay into future Medicare coverage, is part of a group suing Chicago over its plan to phase many retirees out of city coverage during the next three and a half years. “I was promised health care for myself and my wife for life,” he said.
Unfunded retiree health care costs loom larger than ever for localities across the country, and the health law’s guarantee of federal subsidies to help people with modest incomes afford coverage has made the new insurance markets tantalizing for local governments. A study issued this year by the Pew Charitable Trusts found 61 of the nation’s major cities wrestling with $126 billion in retiree health costs, all but 6 percent of that unfunded.
“The Affordable Care Act does change the possibilities here dramatically,” said Neil Bomberg, a program director at the National League of Cities. “It offers a very high-quality, potentially very affordable way to get people into health care without the burden falling back onto the city and town.”
But if large numbers of localities follow that course, it could amount to a significant cost shift to the federal government. Authors of the health care law expected at least some shifting of retirees into the new insurance exchanges, said Timothy S. Jost, a law professor at Washington and Lee University who closely follows the law. “But if a lot of them do, especially big state and local programs,” he said, “that’s going to be a huge cost for the United States government, and it’s mandatory spending.”