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Illinois House votes to end ‘free’ health care for state retirees

Michael J. Madigan  speaker Illinois House Representatives. | File photo

Michael J. Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives. | File photo

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Updated: June 11, 2012 10:17AM

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois House voted Wednesday to yank “free” taxpayer-funded health insurance from nearly 80,000 retired state workers, university employees, lawmakers and judges.

The measure, which was approved by a 74-43 vote and now moves to the Senate, takes aim at an $876 million annual subsidy that had been one of the most lucrative perks of public employment.

“Not only are these benefits unaffordable given today’s fiscal situation, but they are far more generous than those provided by other governments to their employees and those provided by the private sector,” said House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), who sponsored the bill along with House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego).

“If you take this bill and compare it to other matters we’re being asked to do in this session, I say if we can’t do this bill, what are we going to be able to do?” Madigan asked.

Indeed, the health-care decision represents the first of several painful fiscal votes lawmakers face this month, when they are expected to impose $2.7 billion worth of Medicaid cuts and dramatically trim state and possibly city pension benefits.

The health-care debate spread out over nearly an hour, casting a somber, silent pall over the normally bustling chamber with rank-and-file legislators expressing over and over anguish over what some called the “heart-wrenching” vote.

“I’ve been here 18 years and this one and later votes we’re going to have to take are  the hardest votes I’ll have to take in the Legislature,” said Rep. Mike Bost (R-Murphysboro).

How much retirees will have to pay under the Madigan-Cross plan, Senate Bill 1313, isn’t clear, though the speaker said it isn’t his desire that they foot the entire bill and left open the possibility of premiums being set on a sliding scale based on income.

His legislation puts the price-setting decision in the hands of the state Department of Central Management Services, with veto power given to a bi-partisan, legislative panel — the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules.

Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration has sought to trim retiree health-care costs by $300 million and has proposed using access to state-subsidized, retiree health care for current workers as an incentive for them to move into a less expensive state pension plan.

Currently, retired state and university employees don’t have to pay health insurance premiums if they put in 20 years of service. Retired members of the General Assembly get the perk if they served four years in the House or Senate, and retired judges get it after six years.

“It’s something we no longer can give people free,” Cross said of the health-care perk.

“If you want a system down the road that’s viable and want a state that can provide services to those who need it, we need to make some alterations,” he said.

State government’s largest employee union, AFSCME Council 31, condemned Wednesday’s vote and disputed the perception that any retirees get “free” health insurance since they still have to make co-payments and pay premiums for dependents. It, other unions and the state’s public universities oppose the measure.

“Retired state and university employees pay significantly out of pocket for their health costs, more than $3,000 a year on average. That’s more than 10 percent of the typical pension,” AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said. “It’s wrong to slash the budget by taking affordable health care from retired public servants.”

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