NEW YORK, N.Y.—Sporting sparkly party hats and lifting empty plastic champagne glasses, about 50 retired city workers gathered on the stone steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall Dec. 21 to wish mayor-elect Eric Adams a happy new year — and urging him to cancel the city’s plan to switch their health care from traditional Medicare to a private Medicare Advantage plan.
“We’re wishing Eric Adams Happy New Year, and also telling him our wishes: To have a happy healthy new year, we need our traditional Medicare back,” Sarah Shapiro of the Cross-Union Retirees Organizing Committee, which organized the rally, told LaborPress.
The switch was promoted as a way for the city to save $600 million in health-care costs, without reducing coverage for about 250,000 retirees and their families. It would replace their current coverage — traditional Medicare combined with a private supplemental plan, EmblemHealth’s GHI Senior Care, for the 20% of expenses that Medicare doesn’t cover — with Medicare Advantage Plus, run jointly by Anthem Blue Cross and EmblemHealth.
“The plan will not only cover all the traditional Medicare benefits as well as the benefits covered by the Senior Care supplemental plan, but will also add some important new benefits,” the mayor’s office announced July 14, after Mayor Bill De Blasio and the city’s main public-sector unions agreed to the change.
That’s not true, protesters said. Retirees who switch to Medicare Advantage Plus will have to pay at least $15 every time they see a specialist, and more than 80 procedures, tests, and supplies — among them knee and hip replacements, physical therapy, repairs to power wheelchairs, and CT, MRI, and PET scans — will require prior authorization by the insurance company.
“The whole premise that the city is putting forth is absurd,” said Marvin Ciporen, 78, of Brooklyn, whose health care is covered by his wife’s retiree benefits from the City University of New York. The city, he notes, is claiming it can save millions of dollars without affecting the cost or quality of care, while “giving it to a private company that has to make a profit.” That, he argues, will inevitably result in the insurance company asking for more money from the city, raising copayments, or cutting benefits.
Those who want to keep the current plan will have until June 30 to decide, but will then have to pay $191 a month. The Cross-Union Retirees Organizing Committee says retirees with lower incomes, “mostly women and people of color,” won’t be able to afford that.
“We’re going to have a two-tier system in this city,” Gloria Brandman, a retired special-education teacher and United Federation of Teachers member, told the crowd.
The plan was originally scheduled to go into effect Oct. 31, but state Supreme Court Judge Lyle Frank, responding to a lawsuit by the New York City Organization of Public Service Retirees, temporarily delayed it to Jan. 1, on the grounds that there was “little clarity” about which health-care providers were going to accept it. On Dec. 14, Frank delayed it until Apr. 1, and ordered the city to contact doctors to ensure they were participating, send letters to retirees with accurate information about their coverage, and report its progress to him regularly.
“They said things like ‘All doctors are part of the plan,’ and this is not true,” says Shapiro. Many retirees never received their enrollment guides, and many doctors didn’t know about the change, she adds.
“We really need our own Medicare,” a blind woman told the crowd. “My husband’s doctor won’t be on this new plan.”
Judge Frank has not yet heard arguments in the Organization of Public Service Retirees’ suit, so plan opponents are pinning their hopes on Adams, who has previously criticized it.
“You become a civil servant to have stable health care, a stable pension, and a stable life, and we cannot destabilize it after they retire,” he told the Daily News in October. “Right now, after serving your city, we should not do any type of bait and switch. When you retire, you retire with an understanding, and we need to make sure we live up to that agreement.”
“We’re hoping Eric Adams will just put an end to this as soon as he comes in,” said Shapiro. “And we’re going to keep fighting.”
The protesters marched to a side entrance to try to deliver a red-and-green plaid holiday gift bag full of letters and testimony against the plan to Adams, the outgoing Brooklyn borough president, but police did not allow them inside. They called upstairs, and an Adams staffer came down a few minutes later to take the bag.
Medicare was not intended to enrich insurance companies, said retired City College administrator Naomi Nemtzow of Brooklyn, “but that is exactly what is happening with Medicare Advantage.” For-profit health care, she avers, is why Americans “have terrible health care compared to most wealthy countries, and pay much more.”
She sees the protest as “one battle out of many” against a nationwide effort to privatize Medicare. “I believe we need the New York Health Act and a national single-payer system,” she told LaborPress.