A current example of California’s bipartisan capitulation to public employees is OPEB—formally, “Other Post-Employment Benefits”—chiefly, health insurance for retired employees and their dependents costing the state $10 billion per year. Those benefits are provided even when the retiree or dependent has another job that offers insurance, is covered by Medicare, or is entitled to premium support from the Affordable Care Act.
No other state in America showers such subsidies on retired employees, who are already entitled to the highest pensions in the land. But both parties have been obstacles to OPEB reform because both fear retribution from government employee unions. If you have any doubt about that, check out donations to legislators on both sides of the aisle.
Author(s): David Crane
Publication Date: 12 March 2021
Publication Site: Hoover Institution at Stanford University
In some cases, state and local governments show net OPEB liabilities, which is the total amount of benefits already promised to retirees, as large or larger than their net pension liabilities. Although the total future cost of retiree health care benefits is smaller than pension benefits, which are intended to replace income, most governments have at least partially prefunded their pension benefits while setting aside little or no money to cover their future OPEB costs. This is often attributable to the strong legal protections granted to public pensions but that largely do not extend to OPEB benefit promises made to workers in most places. Nonetheless, by failing to set aside funds for retiree health benefits as employees accrue them, government employers are burdening future taxpayers with growing debt. The size of the problem is also raising doubts among prospective retirees about whether the benefits promised to them will really be there when they retire.
In this post, I consider two potential strategies for using the temporary increase in governments’ fiscal capacity to address unfunded other post-employment benefit liabilities: (1) prefunding and reforming defined retiree healthcare benefits, and (2) switching employees to defined contribution retiree health care benefits.