FLINT — More than 1,500 retirees who have worked for Genesee County could be in jeopardy of losing their healthcare benefits, following the depletion of a county fund that they depend on.
The Voluntary Employees Benefit Association trust fund (VEBA), a healthcare account that was created by the Genesee County government, is expected to run out of money by this December. This could potentially leave many Genesee County retirees without all or part of their healthcare funds, unless the county can come up with a funding solution by next January.
Genesee County Clerk John Gleason, who held a press conference to address the issue last Thursday, said that a loss of healthcare funds would have a devastating impact on retirees.
“If you’re working for Genesee County, or have worked for the county, this will turn your life upside down,” he said. “Healthcare is the most expensive cost you can have to pay when you’re retired.”
Gleason was joined at the press conference by retired Genesee County Sheriff’s Department officers Tony Gwizdz and Martin Lahti, who said that they rely heavily on the VEBA account to cover medication and health-related expenses.
Both men also pointed out that the county has a contractual obligation to provide its retirees with life-time guaranteed healthcare benefits.
Josh Freeman, board coordinator for the Genesee County Board of Commissioners, said that the county is looking into many options to keep retirees’ healthcare benefits afloat.
“Not one county commissioner has said that we’re going to eliminate healthcare for retirees,” he said. “We’ve got to find ways to continue to offer the same benefits but at a lower cost with better long-term results.”
According to Freeman, the county will have to pay $18.8 million a year from the general fund to keep the VEBA account going through the 2019/2020 fiscal year. In 10 years, that cost is projected to rise to around $33 million a year.
Freeman also said that the VEBA account was never fully funded when it was created in 2005, and that the mid-2000s recession and rising healthcare costs have contributed to the fund’s depletion.
To help solve the healthcare funding problem, Freeman said that the county will be reviewing old contracts and talking with its healthcare providers. He also said that the county is moving toward a pay-as-yougo healthcare system in the coming fiscal year, rather than relying on the current trust fund model.
In the meantime, Gleason said the Genesee County Board of Commissioners needs to be transparent and honor the contract that was made between the county and its employees.
“It’s so unthinkable that they would put elderly people with compromised health issues in this position,” he said. “When the county board found out a month ago that the healthcare plan was in trouble, the commissioners didn’t say one word (to the public) until we held our press conference.”
Yesterday afternoon, the Board of Commissioners held a special meeting to discuss the VEBA account and to hear input from Genesee County retirees. The county plans to hold more public forums on the issue in the coming months and has created a page on its website (gc4me.com) to display information on VEBA and upcoming meeting agendas.
Details on the VEBA meetings can also be found on the county’s social media pages.