Mecklenburg County gives retirees relief — for now. What’s next, and what’s the cost?

Mecklenburg County on Wednesday offered some solace in a monthslong saga by voting to extend a contested retiree benefit for at least a year and bring in outside help to review the benefits policies.

The county will continue to subsidize the same portion of 289 retirees’ dependents’ health insurance as current employees through the 2024 calendar year while awaiting the review, according to the measure voted on by the commission at their Wednesday meeting.

Retirees have called on the benefit to be extended since they received letters in April, saying the county mistakenly gave it to them for years and would rescind it. The county said the erroneous benefit dates back to a change in benefits systems, but retirees say it’s something they were promised.

“What has become increasingly clear is that it is not clear,” county manager Dena Diorio said of the situation at Wednesday’s meeting.

A “comprehensive review” of the county’s “benefit policy and current practice” is needed, she said, to avoid “confusion, frustration and potential cost to the county.”

The review will include an outside auditor and lawyer with expertise in employee benefits as well as the county’s Human Resources Advisory Council under an amendment to Wednesday’s measure introduced by Commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell. Diorio’s original proposal called for internal review.

“We need someone that can fairly look at what we have … I want to make sure that we’re not missing anything,” she said.

Commissioners Leigh Altman and Arthur Griffin voted against that amendment, saying they believe county staff could handle the review. The overall vote to order a review and extend the questioned benefit through 2024 was unanimous. Board Chairman George Dunlap was not present at the meeting.

How long have benefits gone against policy?

Mecklenburg County employees hired from 1981 through June 2010 are eligible for the same “group rate” health insurance as current employees, county human resources director Keisha Young told commissioners at an October meeting. And since 1981, according to Young, county policy “has always stated that” retirees were responsible for 100% of the insurance premiums for their dependents.

But in practice, the county has contributed to retirees’ dependents’ medical coverage since 2017. That error went undetected until 2023 — to the tune of $2 million a year — and dates back to a change in benefits systems, county staff said at the October meeting.

A total of 369 retirees benefited from the subsidy when the county sent letters in April about the plan to no longer contribute to dependents’ premiums, Young said in her presentation. The current number is 289, as some retirees cycled onto other plans, she added.

Members of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Retirees Association have attended commission meetings for months to call for action.

Retiree Karen Hefner, who was a county employee of the year during her tenure with social services, said the letters were a gut bunch to those such as herself on a fixed income who included the benefit in their budgets when deciding whether they could afford to retire.

“When I got that letter in the mail. It was heavy … a heavy burden,” a visibly emotional Hefner told commissioners.

Another retiree, Gary Marshall, said the change would cost him an additional $500 a month.

“It’s a big deal,” he said Wednesday.

What does Wednesday’s vote mean for benefits? How much will it cost?

Under Wednesday’s vote, the 289 affected retirees will continue to get a subsidy to help pay their dependents’ premiums like current county employees receive through 2024. That extension will now be included in this year’s open enrollment process, Young said after the vote. Affected retirees have two weeks to enroll after they get letters in the next several days notifying them of the benefit.

The “fundamental question” for the board Wednesday, Commissioner Mark Jerrell said, was “What’s the right thing to do?”

“People are hurting, people are scared, people are nervous,” he said.

The benefit costs the county $2 million a year, staff said previously. It’s an expense “that the county hadn’t really planned for,” Altman said.

The review is critical for current retirees as well as active employees who’ll be retired one day and future commissioners and managers who need clarity on policy, Diorio said.

How long will ‘comprehensive review’ take?

Leon Miller, co-chair of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Retirees Association, told commissioners Wednesday the group was in support “in general” of the plan, though he added that the group would like to be included in the review, too.

“Trust in the county at this point is an issue,” he said.

Multiple commissioners said during the discussion and vote it’s important to move swiftly on the review: Commissioner Vilma Leake said it should be done within six months, while Commissioner Pat Cotham said it should take less than a year.

But the measure that passed didn’t formalize a timeline. In response to questions from an Observer reporter on how long the review process will take and how much it will cost, county spokeswoman Tammy Thompson said the Human Resources department “is working with County leadership to move forward with the plan” and “no decisions have been made.”

After the vote at Wednesday’s meeting, Diorio told commissioners it could take time to bring in outside experts for the review but that it would be a top priority for county staff.

“We’ll get right on it,” she said.

Want more coverage of Charlotte-area government and politics? Subscribe here for free to the Observer’s weekly CLT Politics newsletter and never miss a story