NYC union bosses approve controversial plan to mandate Medicare Advantage for retired city workers

New York City’s public sector union bosses signed off Thursday on a controversial plan to make a cost-cutting, partially privatized version of Medicare the only health insurance option available for the municipal government’s retired workforce.

The stamp of approval from the Municipal Labor Committee, which is made up of reps for all local public sector unions, clears the way for Mayor Adams’ administration to eliminate SeniorCare, the city-funded supplement to traditional Medicare, as a choice for the city’s roughly 250,000 retired workers.

In its place, the administration will offer a Medicare Advantage Plan managed by private health insurance giant Aetna as the only premium-free coverage available for municipal retirees. The administration has for months maintained the Advantage plan will provide retirees with robust coverage while saving the city hundreds of millions of dollars per year thanks to increased federal subsidies — and Municipal Labor Committee leaders have sided with that argument.

However, support for Advantage was not unanimous during Thursday morning’s vote, which took place in a private virtual meeting, a recording of which the Daily News obtained.

In the session, 26 of the MLC’s unions voted against adopting the measure, citing concerns from thousands of retirees who fear their access to care would be diminished under an Advantage plan, in part because of preauthorization protocols required by Aetna for certain medical procedures and medicines. Retirees have also pointed to federal studies that say Advantage plans can delay or deny “medically necessary care.”

The plan still passed, though, because the vote was weighted.

MLC lawyer Harry Greenberg explained in the meeting that each union got one vote for every 250 members. The final tally thereby ended up 941 in favor and 253 opposed, Greenberg said.

A significant chunk of the ‘yes’ votes came from the United Federation of Teachers, which is one of the city’s largest unions with nearly 200,000 members.

“The plan is designed to provide high-quality, premium-free health care,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew, a vice MLC chairman, said after the vote. “We will continue to monitor its implementation to ensure that Aetna meets its obligations to our retirees.”

Later Thursday, more than 100 municipal retirees worried that Advantage will wreck their health care protested the MLC’s move during a rally in lower Manhattan.

Denise Rickles, a UFT retiree who worked for three decades as a special education teacher, said she dedicated her career to the city with the understanding that she’d have SeniorCare once she stopped working.

“It’s inhumane how the city lied to us,” she said. “We were promised this, and now they’re going back on their promise.”

In light of the MLC’s thumbs up, the Advantage plan is expected to go through a contract process before officially taking effect Sept. 1. SeniorCare as a city-subsidized option would end the same day.

In a statement, Adams affirmed he believes Aetna’s coverage is better than traditional Medicare, referencing the Advantage plan’s caps on deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses as well as new benefits for transportation, fitness and wellness.

“We also heard the concerns of retirees and worked to significantly limit the number of procedures subject to prior authorization under this plan,” the mayor said. “In the coming days, we will communicate with all city retirees to provide details and next steps for the plan. ... This Medicare Advantage Plan is in the best interests of retirees and taxpayers.”

Among the MLC nay-voters were Oren Barzilay, president of the FDNY union representing uniformed EMTs, paramedics and fire inspectors.

Speaking to The News before the vote, Barzilay said retired members of his union have been told by Aetna that its Advantage plan doesn’t cover certain medicines to the same degree traditional Medicare does.

He voiced dismay at the way the vote played out and said the current structure gives outsize sway to the UFT and DC37, the city’s largest union made up of a number of locals, most of which voted for the Advantage plan.

“It’s pretty much whatever those two unions say that happens,” Barzilay said. “The voting process should change.”

The influential Police Benevolent Association, the NYPD’s largest union, abstained from voting on the Advantage switchover. Still, PBA official Dave Nicholson joined Barzilay in voicing opposition to the structure of the vote.

“PBA is opposed to forcing Medicare-eligible members into the Medicare Advantage Plan,” Nicholson said in the meeting, adding that his union believes “any major modifications of health benefits” for city workers should not be allowed “without a consensus of all MLC members.”

Thursday’s vote is the latest wrinkle in a long-winded push by the city to shift its retired workers into an Advantage plan.

Former Mayor Bill de Blasio first attempted to enroll retirees in an Advantage plan in the fall of 2021. However, that plan was blocked by judges who ruled that a provision in it — which would’ve allowed retirees to stay on the traditional Medicare supplement for a monthly $191 fee — ran afoul of a law that requires the city to provide premium-free health care to its workers for life.

Adams’ administration picked up where de Blasio left off and tried to enroll retirees in a similar Advantage plan with a $191 opt-out option, stressing it could produce $600 million in estimated savings annually. That cash, Adams has argued, could be a critical cushion against projected city budget deficits in coming years.

But courts blocked Adams from enacting the plan, too, after the NYC Organization of Public Service Retirees convinced a judge that the same local law that prevented de Blasio’s move should apply to the new administration.

By making Advantage the only health care plan available to retirees and their dependents, however, Adams’ administration has said it’s complying with the court rulings since there’s no longer a $191 fee on the table.

The NYC Organization of Public Service Retirees, which comprises retired EMTs, cops and other city workers, has said it’s likely to challenge the latest iteration of the plan in court, too, contending it may still violate local laws.

“This is dangerous and unprecedented,” Marianne Pizzitola, a retired EMT who leads the organization, said of the MLC’s Thursday vote. “Labor should never support privatizing public health care.”