WhidbeyHealth CEO Geri Forbes meets with people after a public hearing earlier this year. (File photo)

WhidbeyHealth CEO Geri Forbes meets with people after a public hearing earlier this year. (File photo)

Hospital retirees shocked to learn health coverage was dropped

‘This came totally out of the blue. Retirees are furious.’

Retired employees of WhidbeyHealth are scrambling to find new health insurance after recently learning that their state employee health coverage ends Dec. 31.

About 95 retired employees are affected by a decision of WhidbeyHealth to no longer offer health insurance through Public Employee Benefits Board, known as PEBB, said Annette Barca, who is helping retirees find new insurance.

“They are age 65 or over and on Medicare,” she said. “They have to find a replacement Medicare plan.”

PEBB OFFERS a variety of health insurance plans at a group rate for current and retired public employees, such as school teachers, librarians, public hospital and health workers, civil service and tribal employees.

“PEBB can make better plans available to people at better rates,” said Barca, who is with Statewide Health Insurance Benefits Advisors, a volunteer group that provides Medicare and health coverage information.

MANY RETIREES are asking why WhidbeyHealth suddenly canceled the PEBB coverage and why they weren’t given more notice about the decision.

People aged 65 and over could be covered under PEBB for their Medicare supplement plan, known as Medigap. It covers what basic Medicare doesn’t, such as drug prescriptions.

“Retirees, including myself, are furious,” said Kathleen Lorence-Flanagan who commuted for more than 20 years from Anacortes to Coupeville to work at WhidbeyHealth.

“This came totally out of the blue,” she said. “I’ve been retired since 2014 and it’s a very good plan. The coverage was beyond what I expected and I really appreciated it. I also expected it to last.”

WHIDBEYHEALTH CEO Geri Forbes said the decision was made to sever ties with PEBB this fall in favor of health insurance company plans that used more accessible data.

PEBB still used DOS-based information, she said.

“The PEBB system is very old,” Forbes said, “and we could not get aggregated data on the health status of our current employees.”

Not having access to data meant the health system was “unable to design, develop and implement targeted health programs to enhance the health and wellness of our current staff,” Forbes stated in an email.

“PEBB was notified of our intention to move away from the PEBB benefits in the early fall of 2018,” Forbes said.

CURRENT EMPLOY-EES and union representatives were involved with the decision to switch health plans, Forbes said.

Former WhidbeyHealth workers, however, say they didn’t know about the change until receiving a letter on Dec. 6 from the state informing them of WhidbeyHealth’s decision to cancel PEBB coverage, Barca said.

The state letter was followed with an insurance cancellation notification letter from WhidbeyHealth on Dec. 7, she said.

Barca scheduled informational meetings at senior centers this week after receiving calls from many anxious retired WhidbeyHealth employees.

On Wednesday, she met with about 10 people at Bayview Senior Center and went over options for alternative Medicare supplemental plans and for prescription coverage.

“I’m not sure who is at fault,” Barca said, “but somewhere along the way, the retirees didn’t get notified.”

“Most people got a letter Dec. 6 and learned their insurance coverage would end on Dec. 31.”

FORBES SAID that WhidbeyHealth is not alone in its decision to part with PEBB.

“There are numerous public hospitals in this state who have canceled their relationship with PEBB, or are in the planning stages of this change,” she said.

“Without aggregate data for our employee group, we cannot effectively offer programs to improve the health of our employees.”

Forbes said that the change to move away from PEBB was recommended after significant research by hospital administration in order to enhance employee wellness options, and it has a potential financial benefit.

The decision was reviewed and approved by the public hospital district board, she said.

IT WAS unknown by WhidbeyHealth administrators how many former benefited employees were enrolled in PEBB because the plans are administered by the insurance provider, Forbes said.

“All benefited em-ployees who leave WhidbeyHealth employment for any reason are entitled to COBRA benefits which allow them to continue the current benefit options,” she said. “We did not know who was participating in these benefits until December.”

The state recently told WhidbeyHealth that about 50 former workers are affected, Forbes said.

BECAUSE THE insurance was canceled, Barca said that those affected are entitled to choose from a long list of approved Medicare supplemental plans and they cannot be denied.

“They have to accept you,” she told a group looking over numerous handouts at Bayview Senior Center.

“This is a right you have because it was canceled. And you can change a supplemental plan at any time the following month.”

There’s a dizzying choice of plans to pick through.

Ten supplemental plans are offered by 26 companies with all the same benefits but with premiums ranging from $130 to $360 a month.

Additionally, 26 drug plans, ranging in price from $14.50 to $99 a month, are available.

“THE WORST part of this mess to me is having so little time to figure out the next step,” said Kate Krause, who worked at WhidbeyHealth for 24 years.

Krause described being “very happy” with her Uniform Medical Plan, which is a secondary plan for Medicare, but distraught over how WhidbeyHealth failed to notify people sooner.

“The SHIBA advisors have been wonderful,” Krause said, “but there is a huge amount of information to consider.”

“It was handled very poorly and showed no concern for those of us who are affected.”

Statewide Health Insurance Benefits Advisors are available to assist with options by calling 360-321–1600 or 360-678-3373. For more information go to https://senior-resources.org/shiba/

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