Broken Promise

Pima County retirees plea for the return of their health benefits

Mike Humphrey: "I worked for 28 years and willingly contributed to the system to help people retire before me, knowing that when I retired from the county in 2006, I'd receive those same benefits."

It's been more than seven months since more than 600 former Pima County employees were told they'd be dropped from the county health-insurance plan that was part of their retirement benefits—but a small group of retirees think they can convince the county to reverse that decision.

All they need is one vote.

Mike Humphrey, who retired from Pima County in 2006 when he was 52 years old, says only one Democratic vote from the Pima County Board of Supervisors is needed to make the change. Back in April, the supervisors voted 3-2 to drop all county retirees younger than 65 from the county insurance plan. Republicans Ann Day and Ray Carroll voted against the proposal, while Democrats Richard Elías, Sharon Bronson and Ramón Valadez approved the measure.

Humphrey, a retired Health Department administrator, spoke out against the cuts then, and he continues to speak out now. He says the county broke a promise, and eventually, the county will need to reconsider.

"Someone on the Democratic majority of the Board of Supervisors has to bring it up in order for it to be reconsidered," Humphrey says. "We've been at almost every meeting and speak out. ... We want them to fix this."

Humphrey and others who worked for the county for 20-plus years before they retired are upset about that broken promise. Humphrey worked for 28 years and was told that if he continued to pay into the county's retirement system, he'd receive a pension and keep his county health insurance.

"As an employee of Pima County, it was communicated to us in a variety of ways that the pay wasn't going to be great, but if you put your years in and got your points, you'd be able to keep your insurance through the county," Humphrey says. "I worked for 28 years and willingly contributed to the system to help people retire before me, knowing that when I retired from the county in 2006, I'd receive those same benefits."

After Humphrey retired, he paid $118 per month out of pocket for insurance. However, all of these young retirees were told they would be kicked off the health-insurance plan by July 1, 2010, and that they could go on the state health-insurance plan if they wanted.

"Now I pay more than $400 a month out of pocket to approximate what I had before, but the co-pays are more, and the coverage is less. The state plan is inferior, and I am paying twice or more for it," Humphrey says.

The proposal was first discussed in 2009, presented by County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry as a cost-saving measure that would help the county save millions of dollars. In April, Huckelberry said the change would save the county more than $14.4 million immediately, because of an expected increase in health-insurance costs from UnitedHealthcare.

Humphrey says the cuts were both disappointing and dangerous, because the county was kicking off people who aren't yet eligible for Medicare, and have a specific retirement budget.

So far, Humphrey and other retirees have organized a group of about 60, but they hope they can reach out to more of the 670 retirees kicked off the system. Humphrey says they are having a meeting on Dec. 13 in an effort to bring more people into their group. It's important more retirees organize, because even more cuts could be on the way.

"I can see the state saying, 'Well, Pima County took away health benefits; what's to stop us from messing with the pension?' That scares us," Humphrey says.

Back in April, Humphrey and other retirees brought up alternative proposals to consider; one was to apply for federal money to cover the costs. County officials replied that it wasn't an option. However, since that meeting, Humphrey and others have heard from the offices of Reps. Gabrielle Giffords and Raúl Grijalva that it remains an option.

"All we want to do is sit down with the county in a reasonable, adult way and work with them," Humphrey says.

But the Democratic county supervisors refuse to sit down, he says, so the retirees filed age-discrimination complaints with the Arizona Attorney General's Office and are now in the early stages of a lawsuit.

Elías, one of the supervisors Humphrey hopes will change his vote, says a new vote would be difficult right now, because they have to wait until they can make the change with the county's insurance provider.

"That was a very difficult decision to make. I'm comfortable with my vote, but it wasn't easy," Elías says.

The decision, he says, came down to making sure the county was able to afford decent insurance for the current 10,000-plus county employees.

"We know they have worked for this, and that the deal changed, and that's not fair," Elías says. However, he also says the insurance company is just as culpable, because it increased rates, making the system unsustainable.

Elías says he's not closed to the idea of working with the retirees; he just knows that any change would have to come during future contract negotiations with the insurance company.

Until then, Humphrey, a lifelong Democrat, is turning to Republican Carroll and his staff for more ideas.

Carroll's executive assistant, Scott Egan, says that while Carroll is often critical of county spending, this issue was easy for him to support.

"Here we have a group of employees who put years into the county system to retire early and were promised they would have this coverage. That's why Ray supports them," Egan says.

Sue Ellen Villabrille is another retiree who was kicked off the insurance rolls. She retired after working as a legal secretary for 20 years with the Pima County Public Defender's Office so she could care for her father who was ill.

"I'm working at a call center as a temp, and before that, for the Census. I've discovered that I'm not in the right age range. People don't want to hire me," Villabrille says.

Back when she worked for the county, she says that at times, "We were told there would be no layoffs, and we could keep our jobs, but don't expect a raise. But we had our benefits. I guess I still don't understand why they can't take care of the people who have worked 20 years for them."

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