Portsmouth retirees feel betrayed by city officials

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Portsmouth retirees are speaking out after the city pulled the plug on a health insurance reimbursement account.

Former law enforcement, firefighters and more stood up at Tuesday night’s city council meeting to share their frustration.

“I have COPD, which is the result of smoke damage,” explained Robert Turner, who is also President of the Portsmouth Fire and Police Retirement System.

Turner explained that doctor’s often ask him how long he smoked for, his response is always, “It depended on how long the fire lasted.”

More than a dozen city retirees showed up at the city council meeting in support of those speaking about the reimbursement situation.

“We were promised faithfully to receive a $1,400 yearly stipend, we were promised so at that meeting. We did. We got one,” said Doris Cross.

As of April 1, 2015, former city employees who are 65 and older had to switch from a city health plan to a Medicare supplement plan. According to Councilman Bill Moody, the move was meant to save the city between $1.5 and $2 million. Former firefighter Garland Alexander supplied letters sent from human resources staff in the city to the retirees that explained the changes.

As part of the new plan, employees would get a Health Reimbursement Account, or HRA, to use toward premiums, out of pockets expenses, prescriptions and more.

A letter from Rose McKinney in the Department of Human Resource Management, dated November 25, 2014, said, “The amount of this annual contribution will be determined on a yearly basis. For 2015, the annual amount will be $1,400 per eligible retiree.”

Then on January 14, 2016, retirees received a letter from Elizabeth Gooden in the Department of Human Resource Management. The letter from Gooden calls the program used to transition the health coverage a “pilot program,” and said the HRA would no longer be funded as the city prepares for the upcoming budget.

Retirees like Alexander said they were counting on the $1,400 to use toward their health. He added that many people chose plans based on the HRA.

“We were led to believe that we were going to receive this money,” said Alexander. “Had we not, if it said ‘one time thing,’ we would have made different choices.”

Alexander said he and his wife could have switched to a private plan that would saved them more.

Alexander, Cross and Turner all said it was never clear the HRA would only last one year.

Councilman Mark Whitaker said Tuesday night, the HRA was never supposed to continue. He added, he sees language that suggests that the $1,400 would be provided year after year.

City Manager Lydia Pettis Patton said her office will consider phasing the HRA out, instead of it ending abruptly.

“We will be working over the next week to bring back to council a recommendation which deals with the HRA for our post 65 seniors, in consideration of a step down funding approach to such requests.”

Councilman Danny Meeks offered some reassurance to Cross before she stepped away from the podium on Tuesday night.

“For all the retirees, I want to make sure you understand, this isn’t going on deaf ears,” said Meeks. “We’re definitely going to move in the right direction.”

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