Retired employees in the University of Maine System and the unions representing them are upping the pressure on system officials to reverse changes to health insurance plans they say were done in violation of union contracts and will hurt thousands of retirees.

About 50 people gathered Thursday in Portland outside the Pierce Atwood office of James Erwin, chairman of the system board of trustees, to protest the changes and call for the system to reinstate the previous health care plan. They wore masks and held signs that said things such as “My life is on the line” and “Don’t cut my healthcare!”

Brian Kaufman, who retired from the University of Maine at Farmington after 30 years, speaks outside the Portland office of James Erwin, chairman of the UMaine System’s board of trustees, during a protest Thursday of the system’s plans to change health insurance benefits. Kaufman drove up from New Jersey, where he now lives, for the protest. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“The university system has decided to reward these people for their years of dedication by making changes to their health coverage that will negatively impact many of them now, in the middle of a pandemic, and on into the future,” said Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association.

The changes, which are planned to take affect by the end of the year, involve moving retirees’ insurance from a group plan to a health care exchange where they would be required to pay for medical expenses upfront and be reimbursed. About 3,000 people are impacted, including some spouses of retired employees.

The University of Maine System has said the change is expected to save about $2.5 million annually and that it will expand benefits and provide more flexibility.

“Chancellor (Dannel) Malloy and the University of Maine System Board of Trustees are committed to providing university retirees with supplemental health insurance on top of their Medicare coverage that is cost effective and delivers value and flexibility for plan participants,” said Dan Demeritt, a system spokesman, in a statement. “With only 3,000 beneficiaries spread across the country with unique healthcare needs, a traditional group health plan with escalating costs and out-of-pocket expenses was no longer the best option for retirees or fiscally sustainable for the university system.”

Demeritt said the new plan will allow retirees and eligible spouses to enroll in supplemental medical and drug coverage through the Aon Retiree Health Exchange with coverage provided by more than 100 insurers. The system is providing health care reimbursement account contributions of up to $2,900 for a retiree and spouse to cover premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.

University of Maine System retirees and supporters protest outside the office of James Erwin at Pierce Atwood in Portland on Thursday. Erwin is the chairman of the system’s board of trustees, and retirees are protesting because of the system’s plans to change their health insurance. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Nearly 400 people are already enrolled in plans and experts with Aon will have met with and helped answer questions for more than 2,300 people by the end of the week, Demeritt said.

Unions have said the change was done against contract agreements and retirees are already finding the change to be more expensive with higher out-of-pocket costs and less coverage. In a news release Thursday, MEA said it is considering legal action.

The Associated Faculties of the Universities of Maine and two other local unions representing system employees have filed grievances asserting that changes to the health care system are a mandatory subject of bargaining, meaning the system would have had to negotiate the change with the unions prior to implementation. The grievances also contend the change is in direct contrast to the existing union contracts.

Demeritt said the system’s labor relations team has been in ongoing discussions about how the transition will impact current employees when they retire. “While the law does not require us to negotiate about our current retirees who are not members of our UMS labor unions, we’ve partnered with Aon to provide individual outreach and support to help every single retiree and their dependents make informed choices to enroll in new plans that provide greater flexibility and benefit options, usually at a significant cost savings to our retirees and their dependents,” he said.

Lorrayne Carroll, a professor of English and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine for the last 22 years, said she is putting off retiring because of the changes. Her partner, Joe Medley, is retired after close to 40 years teaching in the economics department.

“We both expected that the retirement benefits we were promised when we took our positions would be in place after so many years of service,” said Carroll, 66. She said the new Aon plan would result in increased costs, diminished coverage and fewer health care choices for her and Medley.

“We choose to work and remain working at USM in large part because the union benefits made that work possible and the retirement provisions were part of those promised benefits,” Carroll said. “For the UMS system to radically reduce their contribution to our retirement benefits, to limit our health care choices and to make these changes without any notice to current and future stakeholders makes clear this decision is deeply flawed and it must be rescinded.”

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