ORR’S CUTS DEVASTATE RETIREES
By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — Belinda Meyers-Florence worked for the city of Detroit for 35 years. A licensed social worker with a master’s degree from Wayne State University, Meyers-Florence spent much of her tenure with the city fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS, treating drug addicts, and helping struggling and jobless Detroiters use federally-funded grants to keep their heat on during Michigan’s harsh winters.
Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s restructuring plan has already stripped Meyers-Florence and her husband, Jesse Florence Sr., both retired city workers, of $10,495 a year in income by eliminating their healthcare benefits and threatens to take much more if U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes approves his plan to reduce their pensions further.
Orr has proposed monthly cuts of 26 percent for general retirees and six percent for police and fire retirees — what he calls a “grand bargain” — however, if the deal is rejected by retirees, pensioners face deeper cuts of 34 percent and 10 percent, respectively.
In October 2013, EM Orr announced he would cut medical coverage for retired municipal employees, offering them the option of enrolling in Medicare or receiving a $125 a month stipend to cover the cost of purchasing coverage on the healthcare exchange.
Sixty-year-old Meyers-Florence and her husband, 61, are not yet eligible for Medicare. Before Orr ended their benefits, the city withheld $152 per month from Florence’s check that completely covered the cost of Blue Cross Blue Shield coverage for both. Meyer-Florence was notified she must find her own insurance by Feb. 15 in order to be covered on March 1. Prices on the open market are higher, according to the retiree.
Meyers-Florence had a triple bypass in 2009 — the Affordable Care Act ensures she has access to coverage even with the pre-existing condition, but it does not cap the amount she can be charged — which she believes is the reason why the cheapest coverage she could find for her and her husband costs $1,026.62 a month, also from Blue Cross Blue Shield, but not as part of a group but as stand-alone consumers.
“If they would have let (the pensioners) continue buying together,” Meyers-Florence told the Michigan Citizen, “I believe it would have kept the cost down, but as a single family buying individually we have no power over the price.”
The couple earns approximately $72,000 a year from their combined pensions, the cost of their healthcare reduces that number to around $61,505. If the pensioners reject Orr’s plan to reduce pensions by 26 percent — a plan that offers no cost of living increases over time — the 34 percent cut will reduce the Meyers-Florences’ annual income to $37,025. Only one of the Meyers-Florences qualifies for the stipend since they are both covered under one plan, and the stipend is not guaranteed to exist in the future.
In 2012, the Cleveland branch of the U.S. Federal Reserve predicted inflation would increase by 1.38 percent per year for the next 10 years. Without cost of living increases, inflation will cause the Meyers-Florences to lose more than $5,400 in the next decade.
Neither of the Meyers-Florences qualify for Social Security benefits.
Similar stories abound in objections to Detroit bankruptcy documents available on the Internet at www.kccllc.net/detroit. KoeKen Ong reports having to pay $1,200 a month for healthcare since Orr cut his and his spouse’s benefits. He wrote, “With cuts in the pension pending the outcome of the city of Detroit bankruptcy case, the future looks bleak. You survive to live and live to survive. We cannot do either.”
Alicia Zagar writes to Judge Rhodes, “For 36, years my dear husband, retired Battalion Chief Mark D. Zagar, (p)erformed heroic, selfless act after act to save the people and property of Detroit … was subjected to war like conditions … in smoke and blaze during the worst years of ‘Devil’s Night’… repeatedly performed physical work… soaking wet… in sub-zero temps for hours… He was burned, bruised and broken, but got back up and did it all again and again. He was protected by the Michigan State Constitution. He was promised healthcare for life. He received relatively low compensation for work rendered, for promised future compensation, including cost of living adjustments. Since retiring, my 65-year-old husband has lost the stated protections of the Michigan constitution… (He) has lost his health insurance coverage… (T)hese heroes… are the essence of why we, common citizens, are able to sleep soundly at night. As we know, if there is an emergency, those cut from this cloth will be there to save us. We know they will rush in — as we rush out. Won’t you rush in for them?”
Local activist groups including Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (D-REM) and Moratorium NOW! are gathering objections to the bankruptcy, similar to Ong’s and Zagar’s. The deadline for filing an objection is April 28.
Pensioners who wish to file an objection can visit moratorium-mi.org/file-peoples-objection-plan-adjustment-deadline-april-1-2014 to download an objection form or call 313.680.5508 for more information. Additionally, D-REM, Moratorium NOW! and others plan to demonstrate on the steps of the Federal Courthouse (231 W. Lafayette) on April 1 at 10 a.m.
The Meyer-Florences have lived in their Conant Gardens home since 1982. They worked hard for decades to pay it off, Meyer-Florence says. “My home is free and clear, but that doesn’t mean that I will have enough money to pay taxes. Maybe I could pay the taxes but what about the upkeep? It looks to me like I won’t be able to stay here. And I don’t know where I’ll be able to go, because I won’t have any money to do any bargaining with,” she told the Michigan Citizen. “All my life, I’ve been sending people to agencies — I know they’re overburdened — I don’t want to have to depend on them myself, but I may be forced to.”