MILWAUKEE (CN) - An 85-year-old cancer survivor with heart problems filed a class action against Milwaukee County, which more than doubled the contributions and co-pays retirees must make for health insurance, though they were promised their retirement benefits would never be "diminished or impaired by subsequent legislation or any other means without consent."
Lead plaintiff Esther Hussey sued Milwaukee County in Superior Court.
In its budget for 2012, Milwaukee County demands that retirees pay 28.3 percent of their health-care costs - a 125 percent increase from 2011. This includes co-payments to Medicare.
The 2012 budget was approved by County Executive Chris Abele - the successor to now-Gov. Scott Walker.
In her class action, Hussey says the county benefit plan was first issued in 1960 and provided "that each member and recipient of retirement benefits shall have a vested right to all benefits at the time of the person's employment and to all increases in benefits."
The complaint states that it is "well settled law in the State of Wisconsin that pension rights of governmental employees cannot be reduced from those that existed at the start of their employment (nor can any enhancements granted during their employment be taken away or reduced)." (Parentheses in complaint.) This includes retiree benefits, including health insurance.
These health insurance benefits included full payment of Medicare Part B premiums, along with co-pays and co-insurance. Beginning in 2006, the county required employees to contribute to co-pays and co-insurance, but this was an unlawful modification at that time, too, Hussey says.
Hussey worked for the county for 30 years. She lives on Social Security in a one-bedroom subsidized apartment and must pay caregivers to help her in daily tasks. She uses a walker as a result of severe arthritis. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She says she was "promised health-care benefits for her entire life" and she earned and is entitled to those benefits. If the promise is broken, she will be forced to make health-care decisions based on affordability, not on necessity.
She claims the county's new budget violates retirees' civil rights, Milwaukee County ordinances, Wisconsin case law, the Wisconsin Constitution, U.S. Supreme Court rulings, and the 14th Amendment.
She estimates that more than 4,000 retired employees are affected by the unlawful changes.
She seeks a temporary restraining order and injunction, and punitive damages.
She is represented by Michael Ganzer, with Hodan, Doster & Ganzer.
It's the latest in a string of lawsuits, including other class actions, against Milwaukee County, on top of the slew of lawsuits challenging Gov. Walker's anti-union law.
Just since November, a nurses union and AFSCME have filed class actions against the county, the sheriff's deputies' union challenged a mass layoff, and Health and Human Services workers sued the county challenging transfer to the state.
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