EVERETT — As the merger of the Snohomish Health District and Snohomish County became final, dozens of retirees learned they will lose access to their health insurance.
In the past few weeks, multiple former employees with the health district contacted The Daily Herald when they learned that in 2023 they will be cut off from their access to high-quality health benefits through the state Public Employees Benefits Board (PEBB).
According to district spokesperson Kari Bray, because the health district will cease to exist Jan. 1 and the county does not contract with PEBB, the 65 retirees cannot stay in PEBB plans. They can choose to buy an exchange plan, Medicare if they are eligible, or pay a lot more for COBRA for up to 18 months.
The district Board of Health voted to merge with the county May 31, and the County Council voted to approve the merger Jun. 8. At that time, the district knew retirees would lose coverage through PEBB.
The Health Care Authority sent letters to retirees Nov. 16, and again Nov. 22, notifying them of the change and their options. The district sent a first letter to retirees Nov. 22, two days before Thanksgiving.
Amy Blanchard is facing a major surgery next year, which makes the possibility of changing her health plan feel “extremely stressful.” As a nurse, she worked for the district for 27 years before retiring in 2016 as a communicable disease division manager.
She said it was such a shock to get the letters that she contacted multiple state offices to make sure it wasn’t a scam.
“I never felt that they could do that,” she said, meaning dropping retirees from the health plan. “With all my (health) issues, I was never planning on leaving it.”
Blanchard is downgrading to a cheaper plan and staying on COBRA, which is too expensive long-term, but gives her time to figure out a better option. She thinks the county and district could have surely done something to continue health benefits.
“Yes,” Blanchard said, “it would take some administrative time to continue this, but don’t we deserve that after all the time we gave?”
Snohomish County spokesperson Kent Patton said staff explored if the county could continue coverage.
“A lot of people spent a lot of time looking through what are the options here,” Patton said. “Could we possibly make something work? These are 65 people who have served the community, saved lives, kept people healthy. They deserve us looking at every possible option to maintain their health insurance.”
Ultimately, considering district retirees to be county retirees would be an illegal “gift of public funds.” The joint integration policy group of the district and county came to that conclusion by at least by Sept. 23.
After a meeting on that date, the county was supposed to work with PEBB to draft letters and make a “game plan,” according to the meeting agenda.
A spokesperson for the Health Care Authority wrote: “HCA is not aware of any notice requirements to an employer group’s retirees when that employer group stops purchasing benefits through the PEBB Program.”
The district told The Herald it wasn’t responsible for notifying retirees of the pending change, saying the Health Care Authority had that responsibility, because it oversees PEBB. Bray added the district did not subsidize the plans. Indeed, retirees admit that some plans were quite pricey. But they felt it was worth it for the quality.
Debbie Riehl worked as a nurse for the district for 11 years, retiring in 2015. She had also worked for King County before that.
“When I opened the letter (from the district), my heart just sank, because I had no idea what it meant,” Riehl said. “I felt panic.”
She felt better reading through the information, realizing that she’d be able to afford to stay on COBRA for a while. She thinks she will pay $660 per month for her Medicare supplement plan through PEBB — it’s a lot, but it’s a quality plan that she knows well.
Riehl worries about “a lot of people who are struggling” financially.
“I still think it’s kind of a low blow,” she said. “It should not have affected us because it’s a state retirement plan, and the health district is part of the state.”
Although a few retirees expressed concerned about their pension benefits, those are not affected, Bray said. Patton called it “very unfortunate” and a “strange space” to be in administratively, with retirees of an entity that no longer exists.
Riehl isn’t the only retiree who felt confused, disrespected and left to fend for herself, quickly, in the complicated world of Medicare and health exchange plans.
Jane, who asked that her last name not be published, worked for the state and then the district for a total of almost 28 years. She said she spent 12 hours a day for a week giving herself a crash course on Medicare Advantage, Medigap and Part D plans, calling it a “terrible nightmare.” She said the retirees had far too little time, during the holiday season, to educate themselves.
“I’m not a stupid person,” Jane said. “I can’t imagine the (many) retirees and their stories, of how big of an impact of what they’ve done to people in various stages of mental capacities and abilities and resources to make this huge decision — and giving us about a month, depending on when you get the letter.”
She feels like the district threw them under the bus.
For its part, the county is just now trying to support the district’s human resources team as they handle calls from retirees to help them navigate health insurance.
The Snohomish County Council voted unanimously on Wednesday to bring the health district’s current employees into the county government with the same salaries, vacation and paid time off as they currently have. The vote was the last formal step towards full integration and the launch of the Snohomish County Health Department on Jan. 1.
Bray added: “The District has been contacted by retirees and we will continue to do our best to answer their questions and support them. We deeply appreciate their years of service to keep the people of Snohomish County safe and healthy.”
Joy Borkholder is the health and wellness reporter for The Daily Herald. Her work is supported by the Health Reporting Initiative, which is sponsored in part by Premera Blue Cross. The Daily Herald maintains editorial control over content produced through this initiative.