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Federal retirees ready to challenge cuts to benefits - Ottawa Citizen

BY KATHRYN MAY, OTTAWA CITIZEN

SEPTEMBER 15, 2013

OTTAWA — Canada’s retired public servants are mobilizing across the country to challenge any attempt by the Conservative government to reduce their retirement benefits.

The newly launched campaign is taking aim at Treasury Board Tony Clement’s proposal to double the premiums that retired public servants pay for the public service health care plan while also limiting their eligibility to join the plan.

The proposal was unveiled in June at a closed meeting of the joint committee of unions, management and retirees who oversee the health care plan. The largest association representing retired public servants recently took up the cause to stop the plan with what promises to be its biggest and most visible campaign but also retirees’ their first social media crusade.

The National Association of Federal Retirees (known as FSNA) has launched a website, www.honouryourpromise.ca, organized an online petition that is approaching 7,000 signatures, conducting a letter-writing blitz on Clement’s office and using Twitter and Facebook to drum up the support of 500,000 retirees and public servants across the country who belong to the health plan. FSNA, which has about 185,000 members, wouldn’t talk about the campaign or the proposal.

The country’s largest concentration of retirees is in Ottawa-Gatineau where nearly 100,000 live — about half FSNA members — and thousands have already deluged local MP offices with letters and complaints. NDP MPs say they can’t keep up with volume of letters they’ve received.

The health plan is negotiated is by the union-management National Joint Council, and anyone who collects a public service pension can join. Under the pension legislation, anyone who contributed to the pension plan for two consecutive years is eligible for a pension.

But with the new proposal, the government wants retirees to pick up 50 per cent of the cost of contributions rather than the 25 per cent they pay now. It also argues that working two years in the public service is too short a time to get access to the bureaucracy’s health plan and wants that extended to 10 years.

So far, the campaign is focused on the doubling of premiums. It appeals to the government to “honour their promises” and pay retirees what they were promised during their working careers.

On its website, FSNA argues the $40-a-month increase is unfair and a “daunting and critical” concern for the most “vulnerable” of retirees or their survivors on small and fixed pensions with serious health problems who could be forced to chose between health premiums and basics like rent food and heat.

Matthew Conway, spokesman for Clement, said the government is committed to ensuring retired bureaucrats continue to receive benefits under the health plan but it must “ensure retirees’ health benefits remain fair and sustainable.”

The retirees have also wrapped their campaign around the broader push to improve pensions for all Canadians rather than roll back those of public servants. Public servants have faced as steady attack from groups like Canadian Federation of Independent Business which argue they are overpaid and their pensions are too rich and unaffordable for taxpayers.

Mathieu Ravignat, the NDP’s Treasury Board critic, said some fear the proposal to change the eligibility for the health plan is signalling another move to further reduce public servants’ pension benefits.

“It’s like opening a Pandora’s box. I don’t think the negative consequences have been thought out nor has there been a consultation process in place or even acknowledged,” he said.

“This president of the Treasury Board dislikes public servants so much that he’s willing to go ahead with something so malicious. Maybe it’s just a case of (a proposal that is) ill-thought or ill-conceived. We’ll see.”

He said some are worried that the move to extend the vesting period for the health plan to 10 years from two could set the stage to change pension legislation so that bureaucrats can’t collect pensions unless they have worked in the public service and contributed to the pension plan for 10 years. Such a move could not only have a major impact on the number of pensions paid by the government, but it could dramatically change the nature and composition of a public service that has relied on generous pension and benefits as a recruitment tool.

The government has given no indication it would go that far, but the Conservatives have vowed to bring public servants’ benefits in line with the private sector, which many argue means everything is on the table for possible reform.

The government did announce in the last budget intentions to review retirees’ benefits. Other than pensions and health care, retiree benefits include membership in a dental plan as well as supplementary death benefits, which is a life insurance plan they pay for while working and can continue after retiring. About 500,000 retirees and public servants belong to the various plans.

Until now, the government’s major measures to rein in compensation costs of the public service have been mainly targeted at existing employees or new hires, through initiatives such as reforming pensions, revamping sick leave and taking away voluntary severances.

Little fuss was made several years ago when the Conservatives increased the contribution rates for the dental plan that was created for retirees in the early 2000s as part of the package of concessions the Liberals made. The government paid 75 per cent of the contributions and moved to a 50-50 cost sharing with retirees.

The Public Service Health Care Plan reimburses members and their dependents for a range of health-related goods and services that are not typically covered by provincial and territorial health plans. The cost of the plan is managed centrally by Treasury Board. The joint committee that oversees the plan makes recommendations to the minister but Clement has final say.

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Original source article: Federal retirees ready to challenge cuts to benefits