Ruling Backs Illinois Retirees On Health Benefits
By The Associated Press, with additional reporting from Illinois Public Media
The Illinois Supreme Court has sided with retired state employees who argue that health insurance premiums are a protected retirement benefit.
The court's 6-to-1 ruling Thursday reverses a lower court decision to dismiss a challenge to a government move forcing employees to pay for a portion of their own health care.
The justices sent the case back to the lower court, where retirees can proceed with their challenge.
At issue is a cost-cutting measure lawmakers passed in 2012. Illinois had paid premiums for some retirees with 20 years or more of service.
Under the new law, retirees had to cover part of the cost.
The case is seen as a possible indicator of how the court will rule on a wider challenge to a statewide pension overhaul approved last year.
Linda Brookhart is Executive Director of the State University Annuitants Assocation, one of the parties suing over the pension measure. She said a high court ruling hadn't been expected until after the election.
"Now that we have this (one) out of the way, maybe things will be done a little quicker in the courts regarding pensions," she said. "We'll see how one plays into the other."
Brookhart also noted it would have been better for Thursday's Supreme Court ruling to have come down before the state budget was finalized, noting the state will now have to pay the full cost of health care premiums.
"Now they'll have to change some things," she said. "They won't have the money that they thought they did."
UPDATE: Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is drawing a clear line between a state Supreme Court decision on health benefits for state retirees and a legal challenge to a statewide pension overhaul.
Madigan spokeswoman Maura Possley said in a statement Thursday the high court's opinion "has no direct impact on the pension reform litigation arguments.'' She says the attorney general "will continue to vigorously defend the pension reform law.''
Gov. Pat Quinn draws the same distinction. Quinn spokesman Gran Klinzman says the governor's office is confident the pension reform law will be upheld.
But Illinois Senate President John Cullerton says the ruling makes it "very clear'' the state constitution protects employees "promised benefits.''
The Chicago Democrat says Illinois' pension crisis may not be over if Thursday's ruling foreshadows how the court will rule on a broader pension overhaul passed last year.
Cullerton had proposed an alternative pension overhaul plan that would have given employees more choice in the benefits they would receive upon retirement.
He ultimately voted for the pension reform legislation passed last year.
Meanwhile, the state's largest public employees union is praising the opinion. The head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 says Thursday's ruling means "retirement security ... cannot be revoked by politicians.''
AFSCME Council 31 executive director Henry Bayer also says the high court's ruling means state workers "can count on the Illinois Constitution to mean what it says.''