A Healthy Benefit
This week we take a look at the city of Warwick, which picks up the tab on medical coverage for its elected officials, past and present. Jim Hummel goes inside the numbers, showing how much the medical benefits for current council members are costing taxpayers. He also lists some of the former councilmen and mayors who are getting lifetime medical on the taxpayer dime - including one who may surprise you.
Hummel: ``While unfunded public pensions have gotten the lion's share of the headlines recently - the unfunded health benefit liability for retired employees is a much bigger problem here in Warwick, to the tune of more than $300 million. Part of the reason: promises made years ago to give lifetime health coverage to many - including city council members.''
Warwick is one of a handful of communities in Rhode Island that offers city council members medical coverage. All but one of the 9-member council take it - seven have family plans.
And up until last year, if you served three consecutive terms on the council - or as mayor - you qualified for lifetime health benefits. That's six years for lifetime health coverage.
That means taxpayers this year are paying for 16 former councilmen, mayors, or their widows - to the tune of more than $50,000. Because Warwick is self-insured all claims are eventually billed directly to the city.
Among the dozen plus receiving the coverage: former city councilmen Mike Brophy, Carlo Pisaturo and Gerald Goldstein - and former mayors Charles Donovan and Eugene McCaffrey. The Hummel Report also found that former mayor - and current Supreme Court Justice - Frank Flaherty receives the largest benefit of all. A Blue Cross family plan that cost the city $16,447 in premiums alone this year. Flaherty also receives a $20,000-a-year pension for his time in the city solicitor's office, as a councilman and mayor.
Flaherty pays nothing toward his medical.
Justice Flaherty is eligible to receive health coverage from the state, but it requires a 25 percent co-pay on the premiums. He receives a $2,000 bonus for not taking the state coverage.
We requested, through a court spokesman, to interview Flaherty about his benefits and ask whether he would consider paying a co-share on the premiums as the current council members now do.
Flaherty declined our request, but said through the spokesman that his benefits quote ``...reflect 21 years of service to the city, benefits that are all a matter of public record and provided under the law.''
While Flaherty had nearly two decades of service to the city, others have much less.
Hummel: ``Six years to be able to get lifetime, that's a big cost to the city.''
Place: ``Big, I don't think we can afford that anymore and that's why it's not going to happen.''
Council President Bruce Place said the council last year voted to eliminate the lifetime benefit for elected officials, saying it is a move toward reigning in the city's obligations on healthcare costs across the board.
Place: ``It's one of the highest costs we incur, especially with retirees. I firmly believe that people that were hired by the city 20 years ago and retired, you don't change the rules on them in the middle of it. But you have to be proactive and think ahead, you have to think about new contracts in the future. What you sign and what you don't sign and we just can't afford those kinds of benefits in the future.''
But what about benefits for current city council members? Employees of the city must work more than 20 hours to get the same benefit, but council member don't punch a clock so it's difficult to quantify how many hours they actually put in.
What is clear: The Blue Cross plan they receive is one of the best available. The council members now pay at least a 10 percent co-share; some volunteer to pay more.
Colantuono: ``It's not an issue for any of my constituents. What I hear from people is - what they see me doing is out all the time, working really hard. And I had a lady the other day say: thank you. Because I wouldn't want to do it.''
Steve Colantuono will be the last councilman eligible to receive the lifetime benefits if he serves three terms - since the ordinance eliminating them was passed after he took office in January 2009. His fellow council members amended the ordinance that would have excluded him from the lifetime coverage.
Colantuono: ``Now the benefit is a great benefit, don't get me wrong, it's not that I worked my butt off for the benefits. I didn't even know we got benefits until I was on the council and we started talking about these kinds of things; didn't run for the benefits, love to have them and I put in my hours and I do what I need to do but if the benefits weren't there I'd move on. My wife and I would find another way to move on and get benefits too.''
But the premiums are only part of the real cost of the benefit to the city and its taxpayers. The Hummel Report has learned that last year the claims against the city's policy for the current council were more than a quarter of a million dollars.
Colantuono: ``It certainly is a big number , but I know there have been some issues with folks in terms of the claims and the usage.''
Hummel: ``I'm wondering whether that gives you pause at all about the benefit
Colantuono: ``It absolutely does. It's a benefit that we all appreciate. You never know when you're going to need it or use it to that degree.''
The mayor has the power to eliminate the medical coverage for city council members, but so far has not invoked that executive order.
In Warwick, Jim Hummel, for the Hummel Report.