New York City retirees battle cuts to healthcare

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On a beautiful day on the lawn of the historic Alice Austin house, overlooking the New York City harbor from the Staten Island shoreline, Freedom Socialist staff writer Dave Schmauch sat down with longtime activist James Wright to talk about proposed changes in healthcare benefits for NYC retirees.

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Freedom Socialist: What kind of work did you do before retiring? Did you have good healthcare when you were employed?

James Wright: I worked as a public employee with NYC in social services for 20 years. I belonged to two different clerical and administrative workers’ locals of District Council 37, was a shop steward for most of that time, and remain a member of the DC 37 Political Action Committee.

We had good medical, and by contract we are guaranteed the same benefits for ourselves and our dependents after retiring. The city however is looking to change this.

FS: What is being proposed and why?

JW: The Municipal Labor Committee is the umbrella organization made up of the many city unions, of which DC 37 and the United Federation of Teachers are the largest. The union leaders, working with the mayor and City Council, have decided to hand over the management of our health care to Medicare Advantage. This is a for-profit healthcare company. They all say that the city will save $600 million, because the federal government essentially pays the private provider. In this case we were told it will be Aetna.

There are several problems. Privatized health plans can refuse certain services to seniors, especially those with preconditions, and they can charge more than traditional Medicare. If this plan is so good, why is it being pushed only on us retirees and not those who are working?

FS: Why do you think they are going after retirees?

JW: There are several things going on. First of all, the city workers recently got substantial raises, so they are not very interested in the struggle that retirees are facing. The raises were clearly a tactic to divide us. It’s also been implied that since retirees don’t pay union dues, they shouldn’t have all the benefits that working people have. With no regard to the years of service we all gave.

And, as mentioned before, there’s the slow and steady push to undercut public healthcare and move toward private, which is happening everywhere.

FS: How many people would be affected locally?

JW: There are over 250,00 retired city workers. You know, they say our healthcare is too expensive. You’re supposed to die as soon as you retire.

FS: Shouldn’t the Municipal Labor Committee be representing the interests of all city workers, including retirees?

JW: Yes, they should. Instead, they’re looking to save the city as much money as possible. But we don’t want it to come out of our benefits. They make a lot of promises, but once elected they sing a different tune.

FS: When are the changes supposed to go into effect?

JW: There was a deadline in March, but that has passed. The next one is supposedly September 1st. There are court dates with judges, and we’ve had many hearings where we testified that we want to keep the benefits in our contract, basically regular Medicare.

FS: Is this a done deal?

JW: It’s not if we fight back. Just recently several hundred people surrounded City Hall. This fight is being led by activists in the teachers’ union. They are very involved. I’m trying to get more people from my union, DC 37, to participate. Anything can happen.

FS: At the national level, Biden promised to rein in the private managers, their overcharges and various abuses. Even though Medicare is much more cost effective, the for-profit healthcare lobbyists have been very active. They essentially got Biden to slow his planned crackdown.

JW: Biden has changed the timeline somewhat, but he is still going to put the brakes on this Medicare Advantage process.

FS: A year ago, more than 50,000 Washington state retirees protested this same proposed change, and successfully kept their Classic Medicare option.

JW: Yes, we have to do more here because NYC is one of the biggest union towns in the U.S., so everyone is watching to see what happens.

FS: There are union actions happening all over. In France, unions that are usually divided are now agreeing that it’s worth cooperating to struggle against the government’s move to raise the age for retirement.

JW: And healthcare workers in England are organizing too.

FS: Yes they are! Good luck on the line, and keep us updated on what happens.

In addition to his union efforts, Wright is also a scholar dedicated to promoting the lives and works of James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry and writers of the Harlem Renaissance. He organizes education forums at senior centers, libraries, LGBTQ+ centers and Freedom Hall, FSP’s headquarters in Harlem.

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