New rules put benefits at risk after 65

To stay active, 74-year-old Hannah Eilbott needs expensive medications. She’s lucky, she says, that most of the cost is covered by her retiree health plan. But she’s afraid her luck may soon change: “I’m worried, I’m scared and I’m mad. I’m very mad.”

What has her so worried is a proposal by the Bush administration that would allow employers to reduce or even eliminate health benefits for retirees 65 and older — those who are eligible for Medicare.

The plan was approved by the equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Three Republican appointees voted “yes”; the lone Democrat, “no.”

Critics of the plan say it’s ironic that the EEOC, an agency created to fight for workplace equality, is now promoting what they say is blatant age discrimination.

The commission denies that the rule is discriminatory, but 60,000 members of AARP, the nation’s largest seniors organization, flooded the commission with letters of protest.

According to AARP’s Mike Naylor: “They certainly feel it’s unfair — they believe its discrimination.… Employer-provided health benefits tend to be somewhat better than Medicare benefits so they want to keep it.”

AARP says the plan could be politically explosive because more than 12 million seniors age 65 and older could be affected and may go to court if the White House gives final approval.

But the proposal’s supporters say the goal is not to hurt retirees over 65 who already get Medicare — it’s to give employers facing soaring health care costs flexibility, so that they can avoid having to eliminate retiree health plans.

“There’s nothing under the law, there never has been, that requires companies to provide any retiree health care coverage,” says James Klein of the American Benefits Council.  “This rule absolutely doesn’t send a signal to employers to cut off coverage to those over 65; it allows them to continue coverage to those under age 65.”

But Hannah Eilbott says it feels to her like the EEOC is picking on the elderly, and says she’s ready to fight back.