Maryland state retirees losing prescription coverage in 2019

Posted at 6:01 PM, Jun 20, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-20 18:06:18-04

Thousands of Medicare-eligible state retirees are just finding out that their prescription drug coverage is ending in 6 months, leaving them scrambling to find a new plan that works for them and their families on a limited budget. 

"It’s a crime. It’s unjust. It’s not fair," retired state employee Jeff Israel said. 

He worked for the state for 34 years, meeting Charles Lewis at the Division of Parole and Probation. 

"It was just a real shocker. I'm just stunned." Lewis said. 

Lewis retired in 2015 after 43 years working for the state. Now they are sharing the same frustration and confusion after getting a letter in the mail from the Department of Budget and Management.

They started sending out letters last month, letting roughly 38,000 Medicare-eligible state retirees know that starting January 1, they will no longer get prescription drug coverage with their state health plan. They instead would have to enroll in Medicare Part D. 

After getting the letter Israel immediately called Medicate to find out his options. He was worried that the cost for his prostate cancer medication would go up, and it did. He said the operator offered him two options, one that didn't cover his prescription at all, and Humana, which would be $10,000 a year. 

"This is life and death type of stuff and that’s the way it will be for other people," Israel said. 

Both say the state should honor its commitment to them and are looking into their legal options since they were counting on these benefits since they started working for the state. 

"It was just kind of a tradition. You settle for lower pay for better benefits, and these benefits you assumed were going to continue into retirement," Lewis said. "Now the state is withdrawing them without really any fair notice."

While it's news to these retiree's, it's not new. This transition has been in the works since 2011, when former Governor Martin O'Malley and the Maryland General Assembly enacted comprehensive pension reform. Originally, the coverage would end in July 2019 to coincide with the federal government's closure of the coverage gap, or 'doughnut hole,' under Medicare Part D.

When the federal government moved up the date the January 1, the Maryland General Assembly voted to accelerate the change here too. The Hogan administration and the Department of Budget and Management say they fought to keep they July date to give retirees more time to make the change. Now, they are trying to help ease the transition.

"We are committed to ensuring that the retired state employees impacted by this unnecessarily rushed process forced upon them by the legislature have the resources they need to obtain new coverage," Eric Shirk, Director of Communications for the Department of Budget & Management, said.

It's not good enough for Israel and Lewis. 

"Someone needs to take action and step up and say, 'I’m gonna work with you people to maintain this benefit'," Lewis said. "I gave the best years of my life to state service, and this was a promise that was made. I’m just asking them to keep the promise

Maryland has a Senior Health Insurance Program with trained counselors to help in finding the right plan. The Department of Budget and Management also have an FAQ page. Retirees have to sign up during Medicare's open season from October 15- December 7 to keep prescription coverage.