Senator Odell is Chairman of
the Ways and
Means Committee, and
member of the Energy, Environment and Economic Development
Committee; Finance Committee; Citizens Trade Policy
Commission; State Park System Advisory Council; and Comprehensive Cancer Plan Oversight
District 8 towns: Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Claremont,
Gilsum, Goshen, Langdon, Lempster, Marlow, New London, Newbury,
Newport, Roxbury, Stoddard, Sullivan, Sunapee, Sutton, Unity,
Walpole, Washington and Westmoreland.
"I feel betrayed," The Washington Post quoted a 23-year career Chrysler Corporation employee who's pension could be cut in half and see reductions in health benefits if Chrysler goes into bankruptcy. A similar story on Friday in The New York Times said "Decisions the government will make soon on the future of General Motors and Chrysler could accelerate the decline of the traditional pension plans, which have sheltered generations of workers from an impoverished old age."
While the State of New Hampshire is not facing bankruptcy like two of Detroit's "big three," some government retirees under 65 face new mandates to share a part of the burden of their health care costs. Originally, Governor Lynch had proposed a $100 per month payment for each enrollee and their spouse, too, if they are on the health plan. The House changed the Governor's idea and put in a health care premium of 11.5% for each retiree and spouse in the first year of the biennium going up to 12% in the second year.
These state-retiree cost sharing ideas for health care have driven current workers and retirees into an active campaign to turn the proposals around. As one local corrections officer at the state prison in Concord wrote in an email, " As a soon to be retired state employee, I have worked these many years with the understanding that our health insurance would be taken care (of)." The proposed changes are driven completely by the need to balance the upcoming biennium budget.
There are two issues for me. First, do workers and the state have an agreement in place that commits the state to take care of retiree health care expenses. Secondly, if it is fair and reasonable to charge something to retirees for their health care, how much should the premium be ... a flat charge of $100 per beneficiary or 11.5% and then 12% of the retiree's monthly check?
In fiscal year 2008, the health benefits for state employees and retirees cost the state $234 million. That is up from $77 million in fiscal year 1999 or about a 13% increase in cost each year for the past decade. That is a lot of money and so you can see why budget writing are looking at sharing the costs of health care.
The key, if the legislature wants to have retirees pay for some of their health care costs, are some important numbers. There are approximately 2,100 retirees under 65 who receive between $18,000 and $24,000 in retirement benefits. They would fare better with the House percentage based monthly premium. The 1,200 under 65 retirees making $24,000 and above would fare much better with the Governor's $100 per month plan or $200 per month for retiree and spouse.
Which way will the legislature go? How about a compromise either blending the percentage and fixed premium or possibly going with a smaller monthly premium, for example, $65 per month equal to $780 per year for each retiree and the same amount for their spouse?
New Hampshire is one of only 14 states that fully pays for health care for retirees and it may be the only state that also fully pays for health care coverage for spouses. In addition, New Hampshire imposes virtually no cost-sharing for the prescription drugs and medical services covered by the under 65 and over 65 retiree health plans.
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Five of the most controversial bills of the year will be up in the Senate on Wednesday including gay marriage, mandatory seat belts for adults, medical use of marijuana, transgender rights and repeal of the death penalty. Senate minds, I think, are pretty well made up and there will be hours of debate but it is unlikely any votes will be changed. What will change is the end of hundreds, possibly thousands of emails received by Senators, with opinions being offered on sides of the issues. Yesterday, I was getting 15 to 25 per hour. I try to respond to every person who communicates with me from District 8 but the vast majority of the emails are coming from outside the district. I still read them but concentrate personal responses to area residents. It is good that New Hampshire citizens feel comfortable letting legislators know how they feel on issues very important to them.
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Who will be our local leaders in the future? For Walpole, the Walpole Leadership Academy may help answer that question.
I had not heard of the Leadership Academy until founders Chuck and Sue Bingaman invited me to speak at the graduation of the current class. It is an exciting concept of
a series of meetings with local officials over several months. Most town departments like fire and police as well as elected officials get a chance to explain what they do along with the problems and challenges they face. Opportunities for academy participants to serve in volunteer, appointed or elected positions are noted, too.
Leadership New Hampshire has been a very effective program on the state level but towns and small cities are even more dependent upon volunteers to keep municipalities going. The Walpole Academy is a terrific way to introduce citizens the workings of local government and the opportunities to serve. Congratulations to Chuck and Sue and to the 2008-2009 graduating class.
New Hampshire State House
107 North Main Street
Concord, NH 03301-4951