WOONSOCKET — A Superior Court judge has restored full health-care benefits to more than 54 Woonsocket Police retirees after finding that the city and its budget commission violated the contracts clause of the Rhode Island Constitution by indefinitely requiring them to pay deductibles.
Judge Jeffrey A. Lanphear ruled in favor of retired police officer Glen Hebert, who in 2013 challenged the commission’s authority to unilaterally cut retirees’ health-care benefits as part of emergency measures to ease the city’s financial distress. When Hebert left his job in 2005, the police contract called for free major medical health insurance for life for retirees and their beneficiaries.
“After a long, protracted 7½ year battle, my clients are gratified that the Court accepted our arguments that these vested rights to retirement healthcare could not be permanently altered,” Edward C. Roy Jr., who represented the retirees, said.
Roy could not put a dollar figure on what the retirees are owed, but said it is being evaluated.
The health-care cuts were among the measures the budget commission, appointed after the city spiraled into a financial downturn, put in place as part of a five-year plan to help alleviate the city’s financial burdens. It required they pay monthly co-shares, a yearly deductible, and co-payments for medical services.
Hebert and the retirees sued and Lanphear barred the city from enforcing the changes. The city appealed to the state Supreme Court, which agreed in July 2019 that the retirees had a contractual right to free lifetime health benefits, but the high court found that the court should have afforded deference to the city in assessing the claims.
The Supreme Court vacated the judgment and sent the case back to Superior Court with the instructions that the court employ a “less deference” standard.
In ruling, Lanphear found that the emergency is no longer “immediately emerging” and, as such, the justification for the cuts had lost their legal force.
A permanent change to the retirees’ vested right, such as the indefinite requirement that they pay a deductible, “is both too drastic and unreasonable” under the current circumstances, he said.
Lanphear observed that the five-year duration of the solvency plan had lapsed and that the “herculean efforts” of the city to right its financial standing had proved a success.
The judge ordered the city to repay all deductibles the retirees paid after July 1, 2017, and restore all bargained-for rights.
A requirement that the retirees transition to Medicare once they reach age 65 remains in place under the ruling.
Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt could not be reached immediately for comment.