EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA


July 30, 2007

Retiree health care expenses a 'ticking time bomb'

Michael J. Stella Jr., 63, was a Lawrence District Court judge for almost 12 years before he stepped down in 2004. Radiation and chemotherapy for cancerous brain tumors hurt his short-term memory and he worried he might make a mistake in a trial.

Stella, who was making $112,000 a year when he retired, receives a $77,321 annual state pension | and, even more valuable, state health insurance.

"It's the most important benefit in the world," said Stella of North Andover. "I don't know how much (the state health insurance plan) has paid for my hospitalizations, CAT scans, MRIs, hospitalizations. It has to be approaching a million bucks. It's keeping me alive."

Stewart Miller, a 65-year-old Andover retiree, also considers himself lucky. He has a pension comparable to Stella's, earned during a lifetime working for oil and chemical companies, allowing him and his wife to enjoy retirement.

But the pension doesn't come with health insurance. Miller is on Medicare and pays $190 a month for supplemental coverage. He wonders why he and others are helping pay for benefits that public employees get -- but they don't.

"I don't think that people who run the government | town, municipal, as well as state | have really looked at it from a taxpayer standpoint," Miller said, "The people in our communities can't continue to pay taxes that go along with increases in benefits."

For years, Massachusetts and most other states, including New Hampshire, have promised health care and other benefits to their employees even after they retire.

Now the bill is coming due, as new federal regulations force state and local governments to account for the post-retirement benefits they have promised.

In Massachusetts, the price tag rivals that of the costliest public works project in the nation's history, the Big Dig. The state estimates it will cost as much as $13.3 billion to pay for the health and other benefits of retired state workers and their survivors.

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