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Lynchburg city council considers changes to health benefits

Published On: Dec 24 2013 05:16:07 AM EST   Updated On: Sep 03 2013 10:50:37 PM EDT

Council members are looking at whether to share the cost of health insurance with employees and retirees, who currently have their premiums paid by the city


Phil Theisen spent part of three decades working for the city of Lynchburg.

In exchange for his service, he says the city made a promise.

"Free health insurance coverage for life," said Theisen.

Lynchburg currently pays the entire cost of health insurance for full-time employees and retirees hired before 1996.

It's a huge savings for people like Theisen, who retired in 2002.

"That's roughly a 400 dollar cost that I would have to pay out of pocket," Theisen said.

Theisen may have to come up with that money.  City council is looking at whether to make employees and retirees responsible for a percentage of their health insurance cost.

"The city needs to take this step, because the cost of health coverage continues to go up and it continues to go up at greater than the rate of inflation," said Lynchburg mayor Mike Gillette.

By having participants pay five to ten percent of their insurance premiums, the city could save hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.

Doing that, Theisen says, would amount to breaking a promise.

"To me it's a matter of the city keeping a commitment that was made in the past," said Theisen.

"No such commitment was made," counters Gillette.  "There was language in the employee handbook that no such commitment was made."

City leaders believe there's legal room to make changes.  Although past employee handbooks guaranteed free health coverage for workers and retirees, it came with a disclaimer that the policy was subject to change.

Theisen understands that, but doesn't see an overwhelming reason for the city to alter its benefits.

"If Lynchburg was Detroit or some city in California that's insolvent, you could understand why they would need to eliminate this benefit," said Theisen.  "I know the city is struggling financially, but it's not at the point of insolvency."

City council is looking at making some small changes that could take effect early next year.  No final decisions have been made, but council plans to take up the issue at a meeting in October.