Health coverage sparks debate

Staff WriterAugust 6, 2008 

— Several Triangle governments that offer health benefits to former elected officials may be breaking the law, according to a UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government professor and the Mecklenburg County attorney.

Durham and Orange counties offer continuing health coverage to board members who leave office, but professor David Lawrence and Mecklenburg County Attorney Marvin Bethune agree they're probably not allowed to do it. Lawrence thinks the same reasoning applies to cities and towns such as Cary, which offers health insurance to former board members, as well.

The issue caused a furor in Chapel Hill this summer, when the Town Council voted to extend health insurance to former members who had served at least two full terms. The council quickly reversed itself after receiving dozens of letters and e-mail messages, and hundreds of signatures on an online petition.

Statutes say employees or officers covered by a retirement benefits system can also receive health insurance after retiring, said Lawrence, who is also a lawyer. But town and county board members aren't eligible for membership in the retirement plans.

Offering the benefits isn't a crime, Lawrence said. But if he's right, some counties and towns could wind up in court.

"The consequence could be that a citizen could bring some sort of legal action to stop them from doing it," Lawrence said.

Elected officials' health benefits came up again this summer in Mecklenburg County, where a commissioner asked whether he could purchase insurance at the county's group rate after he leaves office.

Bill James asked Mecklenburg County Attorney Marvin Bethune to check into the county's legal authority to provide health benefits to former elected officials. Bethune asked Lawrence, and both agreed it's probably not allowed.

"Right now, as a county commissioner I get what all the employees get," said James, a 12-year Republican commissioner.

James said he just wants to be able to purchase the same level of care at the county's group rate -- at no cost to taxpayers.

"It's not like I was asking them to give me the 200 bucks a month," James said, adding that at 53 he has some health issues.

"If I try to buy an individual policy with pre-existing health conditions, I couldn't do it," the retired accountant said.

At the time of Chapel Hill's contentious vote, Mayor Kevin Foy said council work is demanding and could limit some members to part-time jobs without health care.

Foy said the policy would have protected council members who develop medical problems while in office and can't get coverage after they leave.

"Then what do we do?" he asked. "Have a bake sale?"

Counties and municipalities have broad authority to offer benefits to elected officials while they're in office, Lawrence said. Current and retired employees can all receive benefits, he said.

Lawrence said it will be up to the courts to confirm his interpretation. He couldn't say whether the statutes, written in the 1970s, intentionally excluded former local elected officials or whether it had been an oversight.

Seeking clarification

James has asked the office of Attorney General Roy Cooper to clarify the law. "If it's illegal, the [Department of Justice] has to stop it or get the legislature to pass a law and make it legal," James said.

James thinks state legislators treat local officials like second-class citizens. Legislators are covered under their own retirement benefits system, which includes various levels of health care costs.

"It always sort of bugged me that they thought they were better than every other political official in North Carolina," James said.

It's not clear how many former elected officials in North Carolina are receiving benefits. The N.C. Association of County Commissioners doesn't track benefits to retired board members. Neither does the League of Municipalities.

In Orange County, just one former commissioner gets health benefits from the county, according to e-mail messages in which county officials discussed Lawrence's opinion.

It costs the county $445 a month to insure that former commissioner, the same as for an employee after 10 years of service. The policy runs until age 65, after which the county pays for supplemental Medicare insurance and a prescription drug benefit.

Orange County Attorney Geoffrey Gledhill said Tuesday that he had heard about the questions surrounding the benefits. Gledhill declined to discuss the legal issues, saying he hadn't had an opportunity to review them for himself.

The town of Cary pays half the premium for former board members after two four-year terms and three-quarters after three terms. The town implemented the policy last fall but has not had any takers, town officials said.

Durham County and Orange County both pay 100 percent of coverage for former commissioners who complete two full terms in office, say Chapel Hill staff members who researched the issue.

James provided a spreadsheet that Mecklenburg County staff compiled in June. While not comprehensive, it indicates that Buncombe, Durham, Guilford, Hoke, Martin, Randolph, Rutherford, and Union counties offer health benefits to former commissioners, with various requirements and contribution levels.

samuel.spies@newsobserver.com or (919) 932-2014

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