As Retiree Health-Care Costs Soar, Public Employers Turn to Private Insurers
Retiree health care is one of the fastest-growing line items in government budgets and, in response, some governments are scrapping their traditional health plans.
- Unfunded retiree health-care liabilities have increased by $100 billion over the past two years to total just under $700 billion.
- To offload some of the costs, states and localities are scrapping government-sponsored health plans and paying retirees instead to purchase insurance on insurance exchanges run by private companies.
- That shift is expected to save Memphis, Tenn., $300 million over the next few decades.
The cost of retiree health care is spiraling out of control. In just two years, according to a recent S&P Global Ratings report, unfunded retiree health-care liabilities across the 50 states increased by $100 billion to now just under $700 billion.
The problem is becoming so alarming that Dearborn, Mich., recently borrowed money to help fill the gap, a move deemed risky by financial analysts. A more acceptable approach taking hold, thanks in part to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), is scrapping government-sponsored health plans and instead paying for retirees to purchase a plan on a private health insurance exchange. The change is expected to save some cities hundreds of millions of dollars and make their annual retiree health-care costs more predictable.
Retiree health care, also known as other post-employment benefits (OPEB), is one of the fastest-growing line items in government budgets. That's because retirees are living longer and medical costs are rising faster than the rate of inflation.
In recent years, some governments have tried to manage costs by simply cutting health-care benefits -- something they legally can't do with pensions. In 2014, Memphis, Tenn., eliminated its 70 percent subsidy for retiree health insurance, and instead, plugged those savings into its vastly underfunded pension system. But unions fought the cuts, suing and pressuring the city to reinstate health care for retirees. With the subsidy gone, agencies were having problems with recruitment and retention, particularly police and fire departments where officers tend to retire well before the Medicare-eligible age of 65.
When Mayor Jim Strickland took office in 2016, he immediately tasked the city's new chief human resources officer, Alexandra Smith, to fix the problem. That's when the idea of turning to a health insurance exchange first emerged.
Private exchanges are different than the public, ACA exchanges. The idea is the same in that they pool risk and allow users to shop for their own health plans. But private exchanges are run by insurance and benefits companies. They have been around for much longer, generally catering to the 65 and older crowd looking for a health plan to supplement their Medicare coverage.
In recent years, governments, such as Cobb County, Ga., and the state of Ohio, have turned to these private exchanges for their Medicare-eligible retirees as a way to cut down on costs. But thanks to the ACA, private exchanges can expand their market to include users who are not yet eligible for Medicare. That's opening up new options for governments that are paying for health care for younger retirees.
For Memphis, joining an exchange gave the city a chance to control their health-care costs because the insurer -- rather than the city -- is on the hook for big claims.
Shifting that responsibility, says Smith, dropped the city's OPEB liability by $300 million to total $415 million. Costs going forward will also be more predictable, around $19 million per year. "The volatility we would have had by having retirees on our group insurance plan would have been much higher," she says. "Now we're able to better predict what our annual payments are."
It also gave the city something to offer its younger retirees. While Memphis didn't reinstate its 70 percent subsidy, it offers $5,000 annually for individuals and $10,000 for public safety retirees in the form of a health reimbursement account for those who aren't eligible yet for Medicare. The money helps cover a significant portion of the premiums for retirees who buy a plan on the exchange.
Police and fire unions were initially critical of the idea, calling instead for the government to reinstate the old retirement benefits.
Meanwhile, the idea is gaining traction. Ohio's police and fire pension has already made the jump, and the state's public employee pension plan is considering a similar move.