NJEA wins big legal victory in SEHBC dispute
State backs down, agrees to provide information
Published on Monday, September 12, 2016
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New Jersey Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson asks a question during a hearing on March 11, 2014 in Trenton.
NJEA won a major victory for retired members today when the state backed away from its attempt to force a harmful and possibly illegal change through the School Employees’ Health Benefits Commission (SEHBC) without proper review. The state had sought to take advantage of an imbalance on the SEHBC, created by Gov. Christie’s failure to appoint a replacement for a union representative who died last year, to impose a Medicare Advantage plan on all Medicare-eligible retirees. NJEA’s representatives on the SEHBC maintained that such a move would constitute a change to the design of retiree health benefits that would require approval by the Plan Design Committee.
NJEA’s representatives to the SEHBC did not attend two meetings called by the state in August where the change could have been voted on and passed without the necessary review. Without a quorum at those meetings, no action could be taken. The state responded by filing a legal action earlier this month seeking to compel NJEA’s representatives to attend a voting session or seeking a declaration that a vote could take place without a quorum if they did not attend. The state argued that the matter was so urgent that the court should intervene quickly.
The state’s legal arguments got a chilly reception at a hearing before Judge Mary Jacobson on September 7. She appeared to share NJEA’s concerns about the legality of a potential SEHBC vote on the Medicare Advantage change. She did not appear to be persuaded by the state’s argument that the matter was so urgent that she should interfere by ordering NJEA’s representatives to attend a special meeting where a vote would be taken.
At the conclusion of that hearing, Judge Jacobson gave NJEA’s representatives two days to submit additional information and scheduled oral arguments for today, Monday, September 12. Before oral arguments could begin, the state indicated that it was willing to drop its demand for a meeting where a vote could be taken and was instead willing to schedule an information-only meeting. At that meeting, now scheduled for September 14, the state’s consultants will answer NJEA’s questions about the proposed plan, allowing NJEA to get the state on record about any specific changes. Should the state attempt to force an illegal change at any future meeting, NJEA will be much better positioned to oppose that change or to challenge it in court.
This afternoon, Judge Jacobson signed a consent order stipulating that no vote could be taken on a plan change at the September 14 SEHBC meeting and that the state was obligated to answer any questions NJEA representatives had about the proposed change at that informational meeting.
NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer called the state’s agreement to those terms a huge win for NJEA members and for the integrity of the SEHBC. “Gov. Christie thought he could take advantage of the imbalance on the SEHBC to get his way without following the process laid out in the law. We refused to let him manipulate us, and today’s court order means that the state has to answer our questions. We will continue to defend our members’ right to receive the benefits they have earned.”
Following the September 14 meeting, NJEA will analyze the information provided by the state to determine whether the state’s proposed changes are harmful to members or illegal and will take any necessary action to defend members’ rights.
NJEA urges members to continue to contact Gov. Christie to demand that he do his job and appoint a labor representative to fill the current vacancy on the SEHBC.