PolitiFact: Claim about state retiree benefits omits context

In a Halloween email blast, a Democrat hoping to deny Dan Patrick a second term as Texas lieutenant governor charged Patrick and his fellow Republicans with harming Texas teachers.

Mike Collier of Houston said, “Earlier this year, Dan Patrick and Republican leadership snatched millions of dollars in benefits from retired teachers, claiming that they couldn’t afford to pay for the benefits they’d promised.”

Were millions in benefits taken away? We fired up the Texas Truth-O-Meter.

We asked Collier for his factual backup. A campaign adviser, Chaille Jolink, pointed us to news stories describing actions by the 2017 Legislature expected to leave more than 260,000 retired educators and dependents with fewer health plan choices and greater out-of-pocket costs.

That result — fewer health plan choices and higher costs starting in January 2018 — remains undisputed, we found. Before the legislative actions, for instance, retiree health care premiums, deductibles and other benefits had been frozen, at legislative direction, since 2005.

Then again, lawmakers did not take back any benefits in place for all of 2017, and the spending and other steps they ultimately approved — by bipartisan unanimous votes and with the backing of a group representing retirees — might have spared the TRS-Care program from shuttering for lack of funds.

Before lawmakers came together in 2017, an interim Senate-House committee said inaction wasn’t a reasonable option. The panel’s November 2016 report noted that several times since the 1985 Legislature created state-supported health coverage for public school retirees, lawmakers had shored up TRS-Care. The health plans, overseen by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, draw funding from retiree premiums and percentages of active employee payrolls contributed by the state, school districts and current school employees.

The interim report went on to say lawmakers had yet to find a permanent way to sustain the health care benefits in the face of escalating medical costs and the addition of about 20,000 participants a year — including more costly retirees not yet 65 and eligible for Medicare.

Lawmakers in the 2017 regular session agreed to spend more on TRS-Care in the state budget, Senate Bill 1, in part by inching up the state’s contribution to the program to 1.25 percent of active school workers’ payroll and school districts’ contribution to 0.75 percent of active employees’ payroll. The budget includes an additional $182.6 million in what’s described as a one-time appropriation to shore up the program. Together, the streams of funding generated $483.9 million in additional TRS-Care funding for 2018-19.

Members also advanced, by unanimous floor votes, House Bill 3976, also signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott. In part, that measure ended the long-standing requirement that TRS offer retirees a zero-premium basic catastrophic health plan, known as TRS-Care 1. It directed the system to start offering a high-deductible plan for retirees not yet 65. The action further enabled TRS to pare available health care plans from three plans to one for each age group — retirees 65 or older and retirees younger than 65.

After the session, the predicted higher costs for reduced offerings touched off an outcry from retirees, perhaps leading Abbott to add improved TRS-Care benefits to the agenda of the summer special session. Lawmakers subsequently sent for Abbott’s signature two measures, HB 21 and HB 30. The measures provided an additional $212 million in 2018-19 supplemental funding intended, in part, to reduce the TRS-Care cost hikes for retirees, including spending on premiums, deductibles and prescription drugs set in motion during the regular session. One upshot, TRS said, is the 2019 Legislature could face a projected 2020-21 TRS-Care shortfall of $500 million to $700 million.

By all accounts, the summer actions lessened the pending pinch on retirees. According to a fall 2017 TRS presentation to retirees, the legislative intent was to reduce deductibles and out-of-pocket costs from what they would have been through 2019. An example from the presentation: Retirees not on Medicare would face an annual deductible for family coverage of $3,000, compared with $6,000 before the summer session, while such retirees would face maximum out-of-pocket deductibles of $11,300 compared with $13,300 before the actions.

To our inquiry about Collier’s claim, Tim Lee of the retired teachers association told us he hadn’t characterized any benefits as “snatched” but also didn’t know if that’s the wrong description.

“These are benefits these people had before that are not there now,” Lee said, adding that “the benefits went down, the costs went up, and the plan is still on shaky ground.” Lee also said the group endorsed the legislative actions and remains grateful that a state-supported health plan will survive.

Lee said retirees not yet 65 would no longer have a zero-premium plan. Retirees 65 and older, Lee said, “have lost access to a traditional Medicare supplement plan under TRS. They will now have access to a Medicare Advantage plan only.”

Lee called the new offering a reasonable plan, though he said it will impose “markedly higher premiums, deductibles and out-of-pocket costs.”

Our ruling:

Collier said that Patrick and Republican leadership this year “snatched millions of dollars in benefits from retired teachers.”

Benefits are shrinking: Starting in 2018, retirees enrolled in TRS-Care will have access to fewer health plans, and they’ll mostly face greater costs.

But this claim leaves out details and vital context. That is, lawmakers agreed to this course across party lines. In addition, inaction could have left TRS to phase out retiree health plans entirely.

On balance, we rate this claim Half True.

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