AUBURN — Former elected county leaders may soon be forced to pay their own health insurance bills.
On Monday, the three-member Androscoggin County Commission released its $10 million budget, a proposal that fails to fund a decades-old benefit aimed at paying health insurance costs for life.
The savings: more than $71,000.
“I'm asking, 'When do the benefits stop?'” Commission Chairman Randall Greenwood said Monday. “I guess these people have a different approach to public service than I do.”
The benefit to elected county leaders ended in 2005, when the commission voted to sunset the program. Newcomers were only covered as long as their terms lasted.
But for elected leaders who had already accrued eight years or more in county service, commissioners agreed to let the benefit linger.
Over the weekend, the nine remaining beneficiaries of lifetime health care were sent letters informing them of the change.
They include former Register of Probate John Cleveland and former Commissioners Elmer Berry and Patience Johnson.
Johnson said Monday she is “disappointed” in the move and worried for her husband, former Lewiston City Councilor Paul Samson.
He suffers “massive heart issues” and may be uninsurable if the benefit is cut off, she said. “He is on a pacemaker that is pacing his heart 96 percent of the time,” Johnson said. “He is lucky to be alive.”
A change in her insurance would cost thousands of dollars, she said.
The move isn't final.
The Budget Committee must first approve the 2011 budget. It must then return to the commission for a vote.
Commissioner Elaine Makas, a dissenter on the three-member board, believes the county should continue to pay for Johnson and the others.
She dislikes the expense but believes canceling the benefit is unethical and probably illegal, she said.
“You don't do that to people,” she said. The benefit has been awarded for decades and continues as part of the county's personnel policy for those people were employed by the county before 2005.
On Wednesday, the commission will decide whether to rewrite the policy.
“People organized their retirement years based on what they thought that had,” Makas said.
That point was brought up again and again in an April public meeting on the issue.
Cleveland, the former register of probate, said after that meeting that such a move would likely ignite a lawsuit.
On Monday, Cleveland declined comment so he could further study the commission's actions.
However, Greenwood said he's fairly certain that people will sue.
The county is already facing several lawsuits. Among them is a battle over whether the county is responsible for paying the health care premiums for the surviving spouses of deceased county workers.
That issue is awaiting a superior court decision.
“We keep getting in these battles that cost umpteen dollars in legal fees,” Makas said.
She hopes that the newest commission move doesn't spawn another lawsuit.
“I don't think the county is going to win this one,” she said.