WILLIAMSTON - A group of Martin County retired employees recently received a letter from the county manager that has left them panicked and with plenty of questions.

The letter, dated April 12, explained the county has been "exploring ways to continue to provide you high quality pre-65 health insurance while saving money."

Retiree Letter

In the letter, Martin County Manager James Bennett pointed out in the letter the cost of health care and health insurance continues to go up every year. He also pointed out the county sometimes pays more than double for the pre-65 years of age retirees' insurance compared to active employees. The number of employees in this category reportedly is less than 20 at this time.

The text of the letter continued, "Currently, all pre-65 retirees are on individual gold plans. Effective July 1, the county will be providing pre-65 retirees the bronze plan and a Health Reimbursement Account (HRA) to help close the gap in the deductive amount and copy differences between the plans. However, there are some options if you would like to keep your gold plan."

The first option was to see if the retiree qualifies for a federal subsidy and purchase a marketplace plan.

The second option, according to the letter, would be for the retiree to pay the difference between the bronze and gold plan.

Retirees receiving the letter were directed to schedule an appointment on April 21 with an insurance agent working with Mark III, the broker assisting the county.

In the letter Bennett told the recipients, "At this meeting you can meet one on one with Kathy (the agent) to discuss the difference in the plans, the HRA account and determine if you would qualify for the subsidy."

Donna Ward, who is retiring from the county this week with nearly 40 years on the job, met with the insurance agent and explained what she was told.

"We had to have information back in to this lady by the 15th of June, and if we don't, they will charge us for the gold (plan) starting in July," Ward said.

Of the 12 retirees polled, those charges to keep their current coverage would range from $250 to more than $400 a month. All said this is a cost they were not prepared to budget for on such short notice.

Making a switch to another plan in the middle of the retirees insurance year (January - December) could subject them to having to start over with deductibles, depending on what switch is made.

Mike Stalls is one of the younger members of the impacted group.

"We made the informed decision to retire," according to Stalls with the knowledge their insurance would be paid was a part of that decision.

"I understand trying to cut cost. I get that," he explained. "It doesn't need to start here."

Since 2015, county employees have been on N.C. State Health Plan. The move to this plan did not allow retirees to be covered, forcing them to move to individual plans.

Bennett confirmed a 2 percent cost of living increase is in the budget for employees, which does include county commissioners. When asked if he wanted to address increases in compensation - specifically impacting county commissioners - Bennett responded, "No, because they are part of the employee staff just like everybody else."

When asked if this plan is a done deal, Bennett stated the board would have final approval over whether or not the changes outlined in the letter to retirees occurs.

The county manager explained this would be a part of the proposed budget as presented to the Martin County Board of Commissioners for approval.

"The board can say 'no we don't want to do this,'" Bennett responded.

If that were to occur, Bennett explained he and the finance director would have to go back and change some things to maintain a balanced budget.

Bennett was asked if there was a danger of the budget not being passed before the deadlines already given to the retiree group. He said that would not happen.

Bennett stressed this situation deals with individual plans and not group plans and the meetings were informational.

Late Tuesday morning, a special called meeting of the Martin County Board of Commissioners was announced for 7 p.m. Thursday, April 29. According to the Facebook post made to the Martin County Government page, the sole topic of the meeting will be Pre-65 Health Insurance Options Presentations.

Sarah Hodges Stalls can be reached via email at shstalls@ncweeklies.com