Washington lawmakers keep their state of Connecticut medical plans

I'm not sure I agree with Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Herbst, the former first selectman of Trumbull, on many issues, but I do like some of his tough talk on loosening the grip of unions on the state's financial future.

I also heard an interesting fact from Herbst, in his pitch for pension reform for state retirees, as he gave an example during a recent interview with The Day's editorial board, of how generous Connecticut is with its retirees, especially with post-employment medical benefits.

To prove his point, Herbst cited five former Connecticut lawmakers who went on to the U.S. Congress, some still there and some having since moved on, who all have kept their medical benefits from Connecticut.

They are: U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal; U.S. Rep. John Larson; former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, now Stonington first selectman; former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays and former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman.

Indeed, a quick fact check confirmed those five still are enrolled in Connecticut's medical plan through UnitedHealthcare. For those over 65 and eligible for Medicare, it provides additional coverage for things Medicare would not cover.

A quick review of the benefit highlights of the plan make it look attractive, with no copays for a lot of routine situations or low copays, like $15, for some things other plans don't cover at all, like eye exams. It even includes free fitness program enrollment. Spouses may be included.

I had varying success reaching the former Connecticut lawmakers called out by Herbst for hanging on to their Connecticut-paid benefits, even after moving on to the federal payroll.

I reached someone at Lieberman's New York law firm, Kasowitz Benson Torres, who promised to get a message to the former Connecticut attorney general about why I was calling, but I never heard back.

A message left for a spokesperson for Sen. Blumenthal was not returned. I couldn't reach Shays.

Rep. Larson called back himself and explained that he kept his Connecticut coverage for his family when he moved to represent Connecticut in Washington to ensure continuity with medical insurance and providers. He noted, too, that his wife is still a Connecticut employee, at the Department of Economic and Community Development.

Simmons also promptly returned a message and called.

Of course, Simmons, after his many years of public service, in the military and in politics, has almost as many government pensions, paychecks and benefits choices as Elizabeth Taylor had husbands.

He told me he first went on a Connecticut state plan after moving back to Connecticut in 1985 and taking a teaching job at the University of Connecticut. He chose UConn over teaching at Yale University, he said, because they would put him on the health plan.

He ended up running for the state legislature and eventually for Congress. He never did a line-by-line comparison of medical plans when he went to Washington, he said.

"I felt that, as a representative from the state of Connecticut, I should be covered by the plan that I had been under for about 14 years," he said.

Since Simmons is the only Republican among the five lawmakers cited by Herbst, I asked him what he thinks about the idea that the benefits for retirees are too generous.

"They are what they are," he said. "If the state of Connecticut needs to cut back on the so-called generous pension benefits for state employees, be my guest."

Of course there is no reason the lawmakers should not avail themselves of the benefits that are made available to them, by virtue of their employment with the state — the very same benefits available to thousands upon thousands of rank-and-file retirees.

Still, Herbst raises a good point.

When benefits offered to Connecticut state retirees are evidently more appealing than those available to a United States senator, it might be time to look at some of the drastic pension reforms Herbst is endorsing.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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