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Legal challenge on retiree benefits loses first round in court

July 15, 2013

WOONSOCKET – A Superior Court judge on Friday denied a retired policeman’s petition for a temporary restraining order prohibiting the city from cutting his health care benefits without collective bargaining.
Associate Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Lamphear ruled that Glen Hebert faces no imminent harm as a result of a switch in health coverage imposed on him by the Budget Commission, effective July 1, according to his lawyer, Edward C. Roy Jr.
The judge, however, told Roy and the city’s lawyer, Sara Rapport, to return to court on Aug. 2 to make more detailed arguments about Hebert’s claim that the commission’s actions are unconstitutional. At that point, the judge said he would consider issuing an order to prevent the health care rollbacks pending what amounts to a full-blown trial on the merits of Hebert’s suit.
During the last several weeks, the state-appointed commission announced that it had negotiated changes in health care benefits with five of the seven major employees unions in the city – cuts designed to save about $1 million a year through 2017. But some unions, including the police and (as of Friday afternoon, anyway) the city's firefighters, plus hundreds of retirees from various employee groups, did not agree to similar changes.
Retirees in the latter group were assigned the same health care plan by the Budget Commission as active employees who agreed to the changes through collective bargaining. Hebert, who filed suit in Superior Court about two weeks ago, contends the city’s actions violate the contract clause of the state constitution. So far he is the only named plaintiff in the suit, but Roy told The Call that about a dozen more have signed on.
Hebert, 55, worked for the Woonsocket Police Department from March 1984 through April 2005. Under the provisions of his now-defunct health plan, the city picked up 100 percent of the premium for his Blue Cross coverage. But the actions of the budget commission were designed to put all workers, active and retired, on one unified plan that is cheaper for the city to administer and which forces beneficiaries to pay more out of pocket costs.
The new plan is still a Blue Cross product, but workers must pay 20 percent of the annual premium, or working rate, plus a $500 annual deductible for individuals and $1,000 for families. In addition, age-eligible retirees were shifted from private plans to Medicare effective July 1.
The changes, voluntary or otherwise, are part of the commission’s five-year plan to rid the city’s financial ledgers of crippling deficits – part of the reason Moody’s Investor Service affirmed the city’s junk bond rating of B3 last week. State lawmakers also demanded at least $3.75 million worth of savings in employee and retiree cuts as a condition of approving a $2.5 million supplemental tax bill for the city that was signed into law by Gov. Lincoln Chafee last week. City officials say the bills should be in the mail by late next week.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo

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