Selectmen's letter offers explanation for insurance change



At every selectmen’s meeting since Sept. 5, when the board voted to change providers for retired teachers’ health insurance, current or former teachers have criticized the decision and pleaded with the selectmen to reconsider. Letters and emails in opposition to the plan peppered Town Hall in the intervals between meetings.

The board’s Sept. 5 vote terminated the retirees’ coverage through the Retired Municipal Teachers plan, which is part of the state’s Group Insurance Commission (GIC) program, effective May 31, 2018. Thereafter, the retired teachers were to get health insurance through the Minuteman Nashoba Health Group. At the same time, the retirees’ share of the premiums would rise, especially for those not covered by Medicare.

After the outpouring of opposition, Selectman Ken Swanton said the board needed to better explain its reasons for the vote, and he offered to draft a letter to that effect. Swanton presented his draft at the selectmen’s Oct. 3 meeting, and after some minor edits, the letter was sent by email Oct. 5 to teacher retirees who had signed up to receive information about the insurance transition. A hard copy of the letter was sent to the same group Oct. 10 (see text of letter below).

“We never really communicated to them [the teachers] why we made the decision we did,” Swanton said. Chairwoman Lucy Wallace said she expected the letter to go to the Harvard Press as well as the teachers, because it was important to explain the decision to the town as a whole.

The primary reason for the selectmen’s decision, according to the letter, was to create parity among town retirees by offering the same insurance plans to all, with retired teachers paying the same share of their health insurance premiums that other retired town employees pay.

Selec2man Kara Minar expressed some reservations about the letter, in particular the statement about the increasing share of the town budget devoted to health insurance since 1972. She noted that a significant part of the increase over those 45 years came not from rising rates, but rather from having a growing school system that required more teachers.

Rather than improving the situation, however, in some cases the letter aroused fresh criticism. Even the timing of the letter provoked Keith Cheveralls, husband of a retired teacher and a former School Committee chairman. He fired off an email to the Press and others, saying, “Only the Town of Harvard’s BOS Chair and Human Resources Director could be so insensitive and/or oblivious as to send such a letter to retired teachers on the eve of Oct. 5th. Yep, today—Oct 5th is celebrated worldwide as International Teachers Day.”

Both Swanton and Wallace emphasized that the selectmen were still considering possible adjustments to the new plan, in particular the situation of retirees who weren’t eligible for Medicare. Wallace said Town Administrator Tim Bragan and Human Resources Director Marie Sobalvarro met with the town’s labor counsel last week to consider options.

One option for which several teachers expressed support is to make the transition more gradual by keeping already retired teachers on the GIC plan they have now, while future retirees would be covered under the Minuteman Nashoba plan.

A letter from the Board of Selectmen
to Harvard’s currently retired teachers

The following letter was approved by the Board of Selectmen at its Oct. 3 meeting and sent to currently retired teachers who had volunteered their email addresses on Oct. 5. A hardcopy was sent Oct. 10 to the same list.

Dear Retired Harvard Teachers,

While you have heard our recent decision to change your healthcare benefits from GIC-RMT (GIC) to Minuteman Nashoba Health Group (MNHG), we want to communicate directly with you as to why we made this key decision.
We appreciate all the input we have received from so many of you. We know this overall process and change has been and will be difficult for many of you.

This was not an easy decision. It came after a lot of research, lost sleep and soul searching.

The primary reason for our vote was our intent to be equitable to all town employees. Most importantly, equity between our retired teachers, who pay 10–15% of their healthcare benefits with the GIC program, and our other retired school and town employees, who pay 25% of their healthcare benefits with the MNHG program. In addition, we considered equity with the many seniors living in town on fixed incomes that help pay for these programs, while also paying 100% of their own benefits.

We also considered the impact on the town’s overall finances. We took a hard [look] at the annual cost of healthcare benefits for all current and retired employees which has rapidly grown in 1972 from 1% of our town’s budget to 13% in 2017. Rising benefit costs have also dramatically increased our long term liability for future benefits for retirees (OPEB), despite our major contributions to our OPEB trust fund which is now the 9th best funded in the state. Our retired teachers are not the only group that has recently been impacted by our hard look at benefits. All towns are grappling with rapidly rising benefit costs. We have chosen a path where Harvard provides significantly better healthcare benefits than most comparable towns. We want to provide quality healthcare in a way that the town can sustainably afford.

We are following up on concerns you have raised regarding the change in your health insurance from GIC to MNHG and will keep you informed accordingly. Marie Sobalvarro, Human Resources Director, will have information on Medicare plan premiums for CY18 later this month; MNHG’s plans’ premiums will be available next spring. You will be given sufficient time to consider which plan you would like to be enrolled in before the May 31, 2018 deadline.
We welcome your continued communication and suggestions in this ongoing process.

Sincerely,

Lucy B. Wallace, Chair,
for the Harvard Board of Selectmen




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