State Workers Question Legality of Prescription Copay Increases

By Brenda Flanagan

“At the rate they keep on going up on everything, it’s not enough,” said Rena Brown.

Brown’s struggling on a fixed income. She retired years ago, after working at the North Princeton Developmental Center. When her prescription copays went up over the past couple of years, the 78-year-old former state worker says it hurt.

“I worked for my insurance, and I can’t see them keep going up on it just because they feel like they want to,” she said.

Brown’s among some 68,000 retired New Jersey public workers who saw their prescription drug copays increase.

“You’re talking about people who could have several prescription drugs each month — $15 to $20 for somebody on a fixed income. That could mean a lot of money for them over the course of a year — $200 to $300,” said Hetty Rosenstein.

And CWA Director Rosenstein says the Christie Administration jacked up those prescription copays improperly — says, it defied a 2011 pension and health care reform agreement between the governor and state worker unions. The new law required a special committee vote to raise health care costs. When that committee deadlocked, instead of going for the required tie-breaker, the state unilaterally raised the rates.

“They just went ahead, they made the change and charged people the money,” Rosenstein said. “And the law said you couldn’t do this unilaterally. And they did it anyway.”

Rosenstein sued the state — along with the AFL-CIO. In court papers, the state argued that until a tie-breaker broke the deadlock, it’d just go back to business as usual — that “…existing statutes, rules, regulations, policies and procedures of the State Health Benefits Program continue in effect.”

On Wednesday, the Appellate Division ruled unanimously that the state “…acted without authority when it unilaterally decided to increase retiree copayments for the calendar year 2013 … and the retiree copayment levels should not have been altered.” So, now what?

“And so now I think they owe people money. I don’t see how they don’t have to pay people back that money. They collected that money and I think that they owe it. And it’s now two years,” said ????.

Rosenstein says the state raised those copays even higher last year, even though the vote is still deadlocked.

Requests for comment from the governor’s office went unanswered. But Brown says that they owe her that money.

“That’s good if they have to pay it back. Because they shouldn’t have took it in the first place,” said Brown.

There’s no love lost between the public worker unions and the Christie administration. In fact, they’re due to face off again this month over reduced payments to the pension plan. And with New Jersey still struggling toward economic recovery, it’s all about the money.