Retirees at Risk: The Precarious Promise of Post-Employment Health Benefits
73 Pages Posted: 7 Aug 2009 Last revised: 1 Sep 2009
Date Written: June 1, 2009
This article examines the increasingly troubled state of employer-provided health benefits for retirees. The availability of such benefits is a major determinant of both the timing of retirement and the financial security of those who retire. Despite the signal importance of these benefits to current and prospective retirees, employers have been steadily eroding their value and in many cases, eliminating these benefits outright. Such actions are often catastrophic for the retirees affected, especially if they are not yet eligible for Medicare.
This article begins by explaining the economic pressures that have precipitated this unfortunate development, including the increasing cost of health care generally. But much of the decline in retiree health benefits is attributable to financial accounting requirements that required employers to disclose the projected costs of these benefits. These accounting requirements have recently been extended to state and local government employers, and another wave of broken promises may lie just ahead.
The article next examines the extensive litigation regarding the erosion and/or termination of retiree health benefits, focusing on the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Claims that retirees have 'vested' rights to such benefits are analyzed in both the unionized and nonunionized employment contexts, as well as claims of breach of fiduciary duty and estoppel. In short, ERISA has largely failed to protect the reasonable expectations of retirees concerning their post-employment health benefits.
The article then turns to alternative approaches that retirees might consider, including continuation coverage from their former employer, individually obtained health insurance, and health savings accounts. Finding serious problems with each of these approaches, the article considers recent legislative proposals to extend Medicare to early retirees, noting the impact of such an extension on existing employer health benefit programs for retirees and on individuals’ retirement timing decisions.
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation