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General Assembly cancels plan to discuss Medicare Advantage oversight in special session

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Delaware Public Media
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Delaware’s General Assembly will not convene for a special session Wednesday to discuss the controversial plan to transfer retired state employees from Medicare to a Medicare Advantage plan administered by Highmark Delaware.

Lawmakers were scheduled to reconvene to consider a bill that would have provided additional oversight of the transition — a way for the state to track whether retirees were more often denied coverage under the Medicare Advantage plan than under their current plans, for example.

That changed after a Superior Court judge paused the transition last week and the State Employee Benefits Committee voted Monday to allow retirees to remain on their current plans through next year.

House and Senate leaders tabled the oversight bill, but Senate President Pro Tem David Sokola says the issue will be front-and-center next year. He adds while an eventual switch to Medicare Advantage plans remains on the table, the state needs to act more carefully before making future decisions.

“There are some horror stories about Medicare Advantage plans, but there are some that are working reasonably well," he said. "I think that if that’s true – that they’re different – that if there’s any consideration of moving back in that direction, there needs to be a good outreach plan.”

But the decision to cancel the special session drew pushback from some lawmakers, who argue the General Assembly needs to act urgently to develop a plan for protecting retirees’ benefits while managing the state’s growing unfunded liability for retiree healthcare.

Outgoing state Rep. John Kowalko – the most prominent voice opposing switch and a key player in the lawsuit to stop it – filed legislation last week seeking to offer retirees a choice between their current Medicare plan and the Medicare Advantage plan. State Rep. Eric Morrison says canceling the special session was a mistake, in part because it means Kowalko’s bill won't be considered until next year.

“That’s what a lot of state retirees want to see - addressing this in the long term and not just waiting for the outcome of an upcoming trial," he said.

Morrison says given the bipartisan opposition to the switch, a version of Kowalko’s bill should resurface next year.

Senate President Pro Tem David Sokola adds lawmakers may also consider strategies for managing Delaware’s unfunded liability for retiree health insurance – the underlying reason for the planned switch to Medicare Advantage in the first place. Sokola noted that the rising costs of retiree healthcare aren't a new political issue in Delaware; the General Assembly previously faced pressure in the 1990s to fund its retiree healthcare plans.

During the most recent General Assembly, lawmakers voted to approve putting 1% of the previous year's budget into a trust fund for retiree health care — a strategy Sokola says the General Assembly could build upon next year, though he says more discussions between lawmakers and stakeholders are needed.

The months-long fight over the planned transition to Medicare Advantage Plans has also stirred distrust between lawmakers. State Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton argues that General Assembly leadership's decision to cancel Wednesday's special session, along with a House Democratic caucus meeting scheduled for Tuesday, shuts out the voices of rank-and-file members who wanted the opportunity to discuss the matter as a group for the first time.

"This issue isn't going away," she said. "Our constituents are angry, vocal and organized. Constituents will hold us accountable at the ballot box. It does all of us a disservice because we have to say, ‘I wasn’t told about this decision, and then as a General Assembly, we chose to do nothing until retirees – who shouldn’t have to put their own money into keeping their benefits – took the issue to court.’"

Meanwhile, the State Employees Benefit Committee will consider whether to renegotiate a contract with Highmark Delaware to transition to Medicare Advantage plans in 2024.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.