Water Board reverses course on retiree healthcare | Local News

Under intense pressure from its union retirees, the Niagara Falls Water Board has reversed course and will not move forward with a planned change in healthcare coverage.

Instead, the board will allow the retirees to retain their current health insurance plan, while also offering the opportunity to switch to an alternative Medicare supplemental plan if they choose.

The decision appears to resolve the retirees’ concerns over the healthcare benefits changes enacted by the water board. But after a Monday evening meeting with water board staff, union officials were unwilling to declare victory in their dispute.

“It appears (offering the current healthcare plan for retirees) is what they’re gonna do,” said Tim Huether, president of Steelworkers Local 9434, which represents the retirees. “But if they have the same people (on the water board) then they could do it again.”

Huether said his union members, who are currently bargaining for a new contract with the board, had lost trust in the board members.

“What are they gonna do next?” Huether asked. “They tried to force a change that they weren’t authorized to change. There’s shenanigans going on that we’re gonna put a stop to.”

The retirees, members of the steelworkers and building trades unions, have claimed that the benefit changes violate their unions’ contracts with the water board. But Board Chairman Nicholas Forster has denied that.

“This was an internal administrative action,” Forster said at the board’s most recent meeting.

Despite the water board’s claim that its action on the healthcare benefits was “consistent with applicable union contracts,” the evening before the Fourth of July holiday, the board issued a news release reversing its decision and announcing that the board would “allow retirees to choose between supplemental (Medicare coverage) and (their) existing coverage.”

“In May 2024 the Niagara Falls Water Board advised retirees over age 65 that consistent with language agreed to by the parties in its collective bargaining agreements, their lifetime medical benefits which are fully paid by the Water Board would be provided supplemental to Medicare. On July 1, retirees were enrolled in Highmark Blue Cross Plan Forever Blue 799,” the board said in their news release. “This plan provides comparable coverage to the retirees’ previous plan, with added benefits specially designed for older adults, and is more affordable for the Water Board because it takes advantage of federal funding of some of the benefits offered through Medicare. To address concerns that have been raised by some retirees regarding the plan change, the Water Board will be offering retirees the opportunity to return to their previous plan because it anticipates that over time most retirees will become comfortable with and see the benefits of choosing the Forever Blue 799 plan.”

The healthcare plan changes impact 130 retirees and surviving spouses. The steelworkers’ union has reportedly filed a grievance over the healthcare changes.

“By providing health insurance benefits supplemental to Medicare as called for in its collective bargaining agreements, the Water Board anticipated reducing its health insurance costs — paid for through water and sewer charges to users of its system — by over $100,000 per month,” the water board said in their news release. “Prior to enrolling retirees in the Forever Blue 799 plan, medical coverage for retirees was budgeted to cost Water Board ratepayers over $2 million in 2024.”

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