Citing rising costs, Myrtle Beach will no longer allow retired employees under 65 to stay on the city’s health insurance plan — a move that could impact hundreds of current and former staff.
“City staff members who retired before the age of 65 (when Medicare eligibility begins) previously were allowed to stay on the city’s self-funded health insurance plan if they paid the premium themselves in retirement,” city spokesman Mark Kruea said, adding that the city had been subsidizing premiums to keep down costs. “However, the cost of the premium for the retiree group jumped significantly in recent years.”
Although the arrangement was never contractually guaranteed — only the city manager and city attorney have employment contracts — critics say city staff had been led to expect the option given its decades-long inclusion in the budget.
They add that because many had planned around that assumption, the city’s move has thrown their finances into disarray at a time when they are likely to start incurring higher healthcare costs.
Councilman Mike Lowder, who variously worked with the Myrtle Beach Police Department and Horry County Sheriff’s Office for 26 years, spoke to that mindset at Tuesday’s city council meeting.
“In 1977, maybe, when I was hired by the police department, I don’t recall it being a promise, but I do remember this: If you come to work and you work with the city for 20 years, at the end of that 20 years, you will receive those health benefits,” he said. “So is that a contract? Was that a promise? I took it as a guarantee.”
City council ended the option in this year’s budget after reviewing reports that the age group (typically 45-64) has comprised a growing share of city healthcare spending.
In 2018, early retirees accounted for 5% of those on the city plan but over a quarter of the city’s paid claims — and in 2022 monthly premiums for the group are set to increase from $830.42 to $1,392.19.
The city, noting that the option required either larger city subsidies or more spending from the former staff, has argued that private offerings are preferable for both parties.
“It is less expensive for them to go to the marketplace,” Kruea said of the early-retiree group, which currently numbers 101 but will grow in coming years. “They’ll get comparable coverage for less money, so that’s logical on anyone’s part.”
However, many have cast doubt on this claim, including Lowder.
“When you look at these plans, they’re not group plans,” he said, adding that he’s open to ideas and compromise. “That’s a very important thing when you are no longer a part of a group. Now you’re an individual.”'
“In the private sector, there’s no guarantee any of these rates are going to stay the same,” he added.
The move has ignited fierce resistance from city staff and affiliated unions, with dozens of current and former city employees filing into Tuesday’s city council meeting in protest.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, former firefighters and law enforcement passionately outlined what losing city coverage could mean for them, noting that their line of work has made them more prone to health issues later in life.
“Police and firefighter careers span unique physical and psychological stresses that are not normally associated with any other occupation,” said Martin Eels, a former battalion chief with the Myrtle Beach Fire Department. “We are prone to lifelong injuries and illnesses, cancers and PTSD.”
The final comment, from the head of a firefighter’s union who lives four hours away, prompted a testy response from Mayor Brenda Bethune.
“Normally I speak on behalf of firemen or police officers, but today I’m speaking on retired members from every department from the city,” said Roger Odachowski, president of the Professional Firefighters Association of South Carolina. “I retired 15 years ago falling three stories, but two years ago I was diagnosed with two types of bone cancer. And fortunate for me, our retirement healthcare we don’t have to pay for — the city is gracious enough to pay for it and said that they’ll pay for us until Medicare. So fortunately I didn’t work for this city, because with $400,000 (in medical bills) I would probably be bankrupt and have to sell my house.”
“For men and women who have dedicated their lives and careers to this city, whether it was in a contract or wasn’t in a contract, we know what’s right and what’s wrong,” he continued. “You guys know your budget, I know your budget. The money’s there.”
He also critiqued MBFD’s retention rate, suggesting the money spent on training replacements could have gone toward retiree healthcare.
“Thank you for being here today, but you do not represent all 900 city employees — OK,” Bethune said immediately after he finished. “But thank you for being here.”
“This council supports, values and appreciates all city team members, past and present,” she continued. “And I believe we have gone above and beyond our call of duty to show that. So we will deal with facts, we will not let our emotions take over our intellect and all I can assure you of is that we will continue to look into this situation.”
In 2022, early retirees on the city’s healthcare plan will have to find a new doctor, as they will lose access to the clinic they share with current staff, whose premiums are fully covered by the city.
Kruea said the city is exploring options to potentially let them retain access to the clinic when they move to private insurance, but could not provide a timetable.
The city has been moving away from retirement health benefits in recent years.
In 2019, it ended its Retirement Health Reimbursement Account benefit for employees hired after June of that year.
For those hired before that date, the RHRA provides $50,000 after 15 years of city employment and $100,000 after 20 years.
The state, which sets the criteria for retirement, has also limited retirement benefits for city staff.
Whereas government employees hired before July 2012 had to work 25-28 years before retiring, those hired after must have their combined age and public work add up to 90 years.