“Sometimes, our veterans and police officers are easily forgotten,” Retirees fight back against insurance hikes

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OKLAHOMA CITY - The mayor and city council applauded Tuesday morning, recognizing more than a dozen retired police officers in attendance.

But, when those officers had their say, they made it clear they didn't have much to clap about.

"I know policemen aren't supposed to cry," said Theresa Sterling, fighting through tears. "But, this is hard for us. We're going to be paying more in insurance than we'll be bringing home to pay our bills."

Forced to retire in 2013, Sterling underwent two neck surgeries and three back surgeries, but now she must undergo a 56 percent hike in her insurance premium.

She's one of approximately 380 employees the city said fall into a small pool that is forced to cough up extra money starting Jan. 1.

The people in the group retired before age 65, making them ineligible for medicare.

But, in part, because of their line of work, some of the employees also make a greater number of more expensive insurance claims.

"My biggest fear is just the effect this is going to have on these families," said Jerry Foshee, a former city councilman advocating for the retirees. "They work long and hard and serve the city of Oklahoma City. But, now, they're going to have to go back to work just to be able to pay for their health insurance. And, that to me seems unjust a little bit."

Foshee asked the city council to find a way to fund a bigger portion of the retirees health insurance costs, suggesting, when council members had a hard time making MAPS projects a reality, they found workarounds to provide funding.

Foshee himself has suggested blending retired police officers and active police officers into the same insurance pool, to more evenly distribute rate increases.

"These retirees, these police officers, we owe a duty to them," he said. "We owe responsibility to them to remember what they've done to this city. Sometimes, our veterans and police officers are easily forgotten."

Mayor Mick Cornett said he wants to have that discussion with the local unions.

He told the retirees Oklahoma City's problem is part of a nationwide problem.

"This is part of the national healthcare crisis that is going across America," he said, adding Blue Cross Blue Shield is responsible for raising the rates. "I felt your anger today, I understand your frustration and I'm hoping we can figure something out that lessens the damage here, because I understand what a blow this could be."

Kelly Dragus understands, too.

She's staring down a quadruple-digit monthly premium in January, up from the $600 or so she pays currently.

The former officer and widow of Sgt. Jonathan Dragus, who died in the line of duty, also has a son with autism.

She's not asking the city for free healthcare but just wants to be able to afford her premium.

She's gone back to work as a realtor, so she can afford her son's medical expenses.

"At this point, I'm hopeful I'll be able to make ends meet next month," she said. "A thousand dollars a month is literally half of my husband's pension. What we'll have left [after paying insurance] will not even cover our mortgage."

"I'm just asking to pay the same rates we would be paying if my husband was still here," she said. "These are people that have given years, decades of serving the citizens of Oklahoma City, and I don't think it's too much to ask to provide them some sort of affordable insurance."

The city is advising retirees to look into alternative insurance plans, though they might have higher deductibles and co-pays.

There is also an employee clinic where retirees can see physicians free of charge,

Mayor Cornett, meanwhile, plans to talk to the local unions to negotiate a way to make the insurance plans more affordable.

Though he acknowledged at the meeting, there are currently no immediate solutions.

"I hope the people that spoke here today understand that the council is not the enemy in this," he said. "We want to do the right thing. We're just at this point not exactly sure what our options are."