After being flooded with complaints, SAG-AFTRA will host an informational meeting next week to discuss cost-cutting plans to dump more than 200 older actors from the SAG Health Plan’s early retirement self-pay program on January 1. The meeting is set for 4 PM Monday at the union’s offices in Los Angeles.
Many older career actors who’d been unable to work or to find enough work to qualify for regular SAG health benefits had opted for early retirement – and reduced pensions – based on the promise that they’d be eligible to receive the extended self-pay health benefits until they turn 65, when they’d be eligible for Medicare. Now they’re scrambling to find insurance companies that will cover them.
The health Plan also is jettisoning the spouses and dependent children of these early retirees who died while receiving the extended benefits. Many disabled actors who’d been receiving the extended health benefits also are being dropped from the rolls.
Sources say that the Plan’s office has been inundated with phone calls and emails from the affected members and their beneficiaries, and it’s not going over well with some members of SAG-AFTRA’s board of directors, which technically is a separate entity from the SAG Pension & Health Plans.
“I find it unconscionable that the Plan would turn on its seniors like this,” said Los Angeles SAG-AFTRA board member Michael Bell. “This program was not a contractual mandate, so they have the right to break their promise anytime they want to, and they did. But just because it may be legal doesn’t mean it’s not patently immoral.”
Until now, participants and their qualified dependents who were receiving an early retirement or disability pension were eligible to self-pay until they reach age 65, provided they have at least 15 pension credits – meaning that they’d earned enough in 15 different years to qualify for a SAG pension. Early retirement and disability pensioners with fewer than 15 pension credits who lost earned eligibility were eligible to self-pay for either 18 or 36 months, depending on their years of Health Plan earned eligibility.
The early retirement self-pay Plan was put into place before Obamacare went into effect, and the Plan now believes that the affected members should be able to find affordable health care on their own.
“For years the Health Plan’s self-pay coverage provided a much more generous benefit than required under federal COBRA law,” the Plan said in its latest newsletter. “The Health Plan began offering extended self-pay through its early retiree and extended spousal programs in an effort to give participants and their families a way to bridge the gap between retirement and eligibility for Medicare. … The benefit also provided a safety net to those with preexisting conditions who might not have been able to buy individual insurance policies. Now that high-quality, affordable coverage is offered to everyone through the Affordable Care Act marketplace, protection is in place for those with pre-existing conditions and this extended coverage safety net is no longer necessary,” it wrote.
“It’s always about money,” said a union source, who added that it’s “unfortunate” that so little advance notice was given to the affected members about this “drastic” move. “They got blindsided by the short turnaround.”
Said Bell: “Many of these actors have been aged out of the industry, and rather than protecting them, the Plans are turning on them. All these members, at the very least, should have been grandfathered in and a warning sent out about the change in the Plan to those who are considering early retirement.”