Retired Firefighters Sue Town Over Health Care Change

by | Aug 20, 2014

town hall

A group of retired firefighters and spouses – 34 people in all – have filed suit against the Town of East Greenwich for switching their health insurance coverage July 1, saying that was a violation of their collective bargaining agreements. Among those suing the town are Town Council candidate Robert Vespia and former Fire Chief Peter Henrikson.

At issue is the contract between EG firefighters and the town signed in September 2013 which moved employees into a “high deductible” health insurance plan known as an HSA (health savings account). According to the retirees, they should be able to keep the same health coverage they had at retirement because they are not employees.

Town Councilors disagree.

“We have not denied them health care coverage. It’s a question of what is covered,” said Town Council President Michael Isaacs. He said the town was only going by what was in the contract and that, in this case, the contract allowed for changes in retiree benefits.

“Contracts with different unions treat retirees in different ways,” said Isaacs. “The contract with the firefighter union said the retirees would get the same health care plan as the firefighters.”

Town Manager Tom Coyle reiterated that argument, saying that some contracts spell out that retirees are to receive the insurance plan they had at the time of their retirement or another plan as long as the coverage is no less than that which they had already been getting. Case in point, police department retirees were not switched to HSA plans – as police union members were – when the new EGPD contract went into effect July 1, 2013, due to language in the contract. All town employees are now on HSA plans.

According to one EGFD retiree who asked to remain anonymous, “Unions are not allowed to negotiate for retirees.” He said since unions can’t negotiate for retirees, whatever the contract read for a particular firefighter at the time of retirement remained in effect.

That issue has come up before, specifically in the case Arena vs. City of Providence. In 2007, the state Supreme Court ruled:

“Finally, because retirees and current employees of the fire department do not share a ‘community of interests’ with respect to plaintiffs’ COLA benefits-in fact, the interest arbitration advocated for here would have absolutely no effect on any current union member – the same danger that existed in Allied Chemical exists here; the IAFF and the city could conceivably come to an agreement that would adversely affect plaintiffs to benefit current fire department employees. Thus, we are persuaded that the term “firefighter” in the FFAA does not and cannot include retirees.”

Coyle said the language in the EGFD contract predates the town’s takeover of the former EG Fire District in June 2013 and that it did not protect retirees against changes to health coverage.

“The wording of their CBA has always read ‘Employees who retire … shall receive their choice of the same medical and dental coverage, which is offered to active employees….,’” Coyle said.

He was citing from Section 32 of the contract signed Sept. 17, 2013.

Town Council candidate Robert Vespia said the lawsuit is independent of his candidacy and that, if elected, he would recuse himself from any Town Council business related to the lawsuit.

“One has nothing to do with the other,” said Vespia of his candidacy and the lawsuit. “I decided to run before this whole thing came up.”

Vespia’s wife, Elaine Vespia, who works in the Town Clerk’s office, is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Former Chief Henrikson’s wife, Kristin Henrikson, another town employee, is named as a plaintiff in the suit as well. She has brought two lawsuits against the town and the firefighters union over being denied a job as a firefighter.

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