Lavish Washington medical plan imperils budgets

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 7, 2013 at 1:36 pm •  Published: April 7, 2013
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Lawmakers built the Law Enforcement Officers' and Fire Fighters' Retirement System Plan 1 — also known as LEOFF-1 — in 1969 to consolidate an array of local pension systems for public servants. The state largely picked up the tab for funding the retirements of the pensioners in the system but has left local governments to cover the medical bills.

Some LEOFF-1 retirees said the medical benefits in the system were designed as an incentive to stay in the job when pay was low. Amid concerns about the sustainability of the system, the state created a new pension plan at the end of 1977 but allowed everyone hired before that time to retain the benefits of LEOFF-1.

The medical benefit covers all expenses for "necessary medical services," with local disability boards deciding what is necessary. Over time, the medical benefits approved by disability boards have expanded to regularly cover things like eyeglasses, dental care and erectile dysfunction drugs. Others have paid for massage therapy, naturopathic medicine, substance abuse treatment and travel to medical facilities, including airfare.

Gary Gow, a retiree from the Spokane Police Department who is also on the local disability board, successfully applied in 2011 to the board where he serves to get compensated for a weight-loss program based on hypnosis.

The $2,200 effort over nine months included hour-long sessions in which Gow would be hypnotized and then counselors would tell him about which foods were good to eat and what foods were unhealthy. Gow said he believes it was beneficial, helping him lose weight. Afterward, he said he avoided eating York mint candies, started to eat yogurt and bought more organic hamburger meet with less fat in it.

Gow recused himself from the disability board vote that approved his weight-loss treatment. He also provided a letter from his heart doctor recommending it.

Like many other boards, Gow's panel gives standard approval to erectile dysfunction drugs. It has also previously approved penile implants, which Gow said qualified as necessary medical services because they were needed to help retirees psychologically and relationally.

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Over the years, the cost of insuring the LEOFF-1 retirees has surged. In 2003, the cost of insuring one retiree through a plan organized by the Association of Washington Cities Employee Benefit Trust was $714 per month. That has more doubled over the past decade to $1,573. Local governments can get a break once the retiree signs up for Medicare, but retirees still cost about $500 to $1000 per month.

Pearce, the LEOFF-1 retiree and former county commissioner, said there's not much that the state can do to help manage the insurance costs. But he said the Legislature needs to explore implementing an insurance risk pool to help locals handle the threat of long-term care bills.

Pearce also thinks the state could tap extra dollars in the LEOFF-1 pension fund to help local governments cover the cost of the medical side.

Mark Curtis, who retired from the Thurston County Sheriff's Office and is now an advocate for LEOFF-1 pensioners, said he generally supports the insurance idea so long as it's fully paid by local governments. But he opposes any effort to tap the excess LEOFF pension dollars because it would make the system less secure.

Curtis said local jurisdictions have had decades to prepare for the medical costs that are now coming due and need to bear responsibility for them.

"They're still looking for another way to avoid it," Curtis said. "We're just going to hold their feet to the fire."

Lacey Mayor Virgil Clarkson has a different idea for lawmakers to consider: requiring retirees to utilize other medical options such as Medicare or veterans' benefits.

One of the retirees in Lacey previously served in the military but has declined to use the federal benefits available to him, Clarkson said. In recent years, the medical expenses to that retiree have included a $7,500 hot tub that local officials paid to install. At least one other jurisdiction — the City of Kent — has also paid thousands of dollars for a retiree's hot tub.

"It was thought that this would give him some temporary relief," Clarkson said.

Recently, the pensioner began notifying officials that he may get dental implants in the near future — a procedure that could cause disruption in the local budget. The projected cost of the implants is $50,000.

That's three times more than Clarkson's annual compensation for serving as mayor.

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AP Writer Mike Baker can be reached on Facebook: http://on.fb.me/HiPpEV