Retirees Lobby for COLA

A serious group of OPEA retirees took to the halls of the Capitol on April 23 in an aim to convince legislators to “de-politicize” their COLAs as well as to explain the dent in their fixed incomes created by rising costs of food, fuel and health care.

Sporting badges that read “OPERS Can Afford It,” the former state workers spent the day clarifying their position on a 2% annual COLA, which is automatically figured into the system.

“Every year, OPERS adjusts its figures to pay out a 2 percent COLA,” said OPEA Policy and Research Director Trish Frazier. “This 2 percent, however, must be granted by the legislature, which has politicized the issue by only granting a 4 percent COLA during every other year, which happens to conveniently fall during the election cycle. Even then, OPEA has to work the halls to get the COLA passed. It’s time that the increase due to our retirees becomes automatically given, as it was intended to be.”

To begin the day, the group heard from representatives from OPERS and Oklahoma Health Choice as well as from House Minority Leader, Rep. Danny Morgan (D-Prague), Rep. Mike Jackson (R-Enid) and Sen. Debbe Leftwich (D-Oklahoma City).

“The good news is that our asset allocation is not heavily invested in the stock market,” said OPERS Director Tom Spencer. “We weren’t exposed to those securities in the downturn. OPERS has a long-term conservative investment strategy, which is the good thing about a defined benefit pension plan.”

Spencer reported on legislation that OPEA had filed to recover funds lost in the WorldCom collapse, which is currently dormant. OPEA and OPERS are hoping to put the language in another bill.

“OPERS supports you receiving your two percent annual COLA without having to pass legislation each year,” said Spencer.

Bill Crain, the director of the Oklahoma State and Education Employees Group Insurance Board (OSEEGIB), told participants that the good news was that the rates for both the Medicare and Pre-Medicare plans are lower than in 2004 and 2005.

“Unfortunately, trends indicate a seven or nine percent increase for next year,” said Crain. “OSEEGIB may have funds to invest in lowering the rates again this year.”

Crain said that the best employees and retirees can do to lower rates is to take care of their health. He reported that HealthChoice is helping members be healthy by increasing the tobacco cessation program from one time per lifetime to two times per year.

“Thank you for your career of service,” Rep. Morgan told the group. “I also want to thank the OPEA leadership for the good job they do. You need to be certain that new legislators know about state jobs and the dedication they require.”

Morgan also reported that he would support a COLA.

Senator Debbe Leftwich told participants about her years as a state employee and support for workers.

“I have authored bills to release the COLAs from the legislative process almost every year I have been here,” she said. “I will not go away. It’s just a political football to get re-elected.”

Participants thanked Rep. Mike Jackson for legislation he passed in his second year at the Capitol to lower insurance premiums for pre-Medicare retirees.

“I believe you should have an annual COLA that is the assumption of your system,” said Jackson. “It should not be used as a political football.”

After the morning meeting, the retired OPEA members began to tell their stories to key legislators and to deliver OPEA cups and other goodies to their assistants, as it happened to be “Administrative Assistants Day.”

By noon, the group was ready to share their financial plights with the media.

After introductions by OPEA Executive Director Sterling Zearley, Mike McComber, a retiree from Ardmore took to the podium.

“The last time I came to an OPEA function, gas prices were under a $1.50 per gallon,” he said. “In just the last year or two, the prices we pay for fuel almost tripled”

McComber went on to discuss that other prices are hurting both retirees and current workers.

“Milk and dairy prices have risen some 26 percent in one year, while the cost of utilities has risen almost 8 percent,” he said.

Lynne Bussell, Chair of the OPEA Retiree’s Council said that medical costs are skyrocketing.

“Our retirees are still suffering from the cost of health insurance and Medicare,” she said. “The cost of Medicare Part is $96.00 a month deducted from Social Security. The state health insurance for Medicare eligible retirees is $245.80 a month of which OPERS contributes $105.00”

Bussell concluded with a plea to legislators.

“We ask that the state leaders provide a four percent COLA to OPERS retirees this year,” she said. “We also hope that they will pass a two percent COLA for future years and no longer hold former public servants hostage to election year politics.”

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