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19 Apr
0

TRS Board to Meet April 19-20, Discuss Changes to Rate of Return Assumption

The Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) Board of Trustees will meet April 19-20. The Board is set to take a vote on changing the rate of return assumption, a critically important factor in determining future cost-of-living adjustments for retired educators.

You can watch the Board meeting here. The Board is expected to vote on the rate of return assumption sometime on Friday. The webcast to view the meeting will be live at approximately 8:30 a.m. on Friday. Be sure to stay tuned to the Inside Line, as it will have an update explaining any changes that are made.

The board met earlier this year in Edinburg, Texas, and decided to postpone the vote on changing the rate of return assumption. If the Board changes the rate of return assumptions, it could push back the timeline for future cost-of-living increases for retirees significantly.

The TRS Board is considering changing its rate of return assumption from 8 percent to either 7.25 percent or 7.5 percent. By changing the rate of return assumption to 7.25 percent, TRS would require approximately $1.6 billion from the Legislature to maintain its course for actuarial soundness. Actuarial soundness is a state requirement for providing cost-of-living increases.

Actuarial soundness is defined as the number of years required to pay off liabilities of the fund. The state law has set this standard as being less than 31 years. For retirees to receive a cost-of-living increase, the TRS fund can’t be more than the 31-year range of paying off its liabilities. At the current rate of return assumption, TRS will pay off its liabilities in 34 years.

If TRS changes its rate of return assumption to 7.25 percent and doesn’t receive additional funding, the funding period before reaching actuarial soundness would reach 86 years.

The Texas Retired Teachers Association (TRTA) is asking its members and supports to sign a petition encouraging the Texas Legislature to fully fund the TRS Pension Plan. Sign the petition here!

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06 Apr
0

Senate State Affairs Committee Meets, Discusses Future of TRS-Care

Sign TRTA’s Petition requesting the Texas Legislature to fully fund the TRS Pension Plan!

The Texas Senate State Affairs Committee met on April 4 to discuss the state of public pension systems, including the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) pension plan and health care program, TRS-Care. Senators received testimony from the Executive Directors of several state agencies, as well as actuaries.

The Senate State Affairs Committee invited TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie and TRS Chief Health Care Officer Katrina Daniel to provide an update on the implementation of HB 3976, the TRS-Care reform legislation passed during the 2017 legislative session.

Director Guthrie reminded the committee that TRS-Care entered the session with a $1 billion deficit. Although major changes were made in 2017 during the regular and special legislative sessions and an additional $700 million was appropriated from the state and school districts for the program, TRS-Care is still projected to have a deficit of $400 to $600 million dollars in 2019.

Chairman Joan Huffman (R – Houston) asked what the deficit would have been without the changes, and Guthrie replied $4 to 6 billion. Senator Huffman made clear that although many retirees are not happy with the changes, they did what they had to do to save the program from total collapse.

Guthrie went on to discuss implementation and communications issues, as well as the number of participants who left TRS-Care for plans in the private market. Aggressive marketing from the private sector to the Medicare population, combined with high premium increases for dependents in the plan, led to higher than expected numbers of participants leaving TRS-Care.

Guthrie made clear that TRS was not prepared with the resources needed for the high volume of participant calls driven by the changes. TRS carried out an assertive communications program that included 90 seminars reaching over 45,000 retirees, as well as mailings and social media announcements, and hired a third-party company to assist with phone calls. TRS has hired additional staff to serve the needs of members.

Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D – Brownsville) said that constituents in his area were frustrated with not only cost increases, but also with the difficulty reaching TRS. The Senator said he expects TRS to document the issues.

Read the full TRS presentation here. Here are some highlights:

  • More than 37,000 retirees left TRS-Care as of February of 2018.
  • Ninety-percent of those who left were in the Medicare population, with a 60-40 respective split between retirees and dependents.
  • 10,000 of those who left were on the free TRS-Care 1 catastrophic plan.
  • TRS fielded over 100,000 phone calls per month from October through January.
  • TRS-Care will need an additional $400 to $600 million in the 2019 session to stay afloat.

TRTA Executive Director Tim Lee was invited to testify at the meeting. Lee discussed the pros and cons of the changes to the health care plan from the last session.

Pros:

  • TRTA members appreciate that the additional funding received last session made it possible to keep a group coverage program available for TRS retirees.
  • TRS-Care continues to provide a robust system of health care and adds tremendous value by negotiating group network discounts.
  • More than 200,000 retirees are covered by the program.
  • TRS is member-focused and connected to the educator community; they are working with stakeholders to meet the needs of retirees who have questions.
  • The prescription drug plan for retirees over 65 is good, as there is no “donut hole” in coverage like with a Medicare D plan in the individual market.

Cons:

  • High maximum out-of-pocket costs for retirees under age 65. This situation is made better by a lower deductible (TRS uses one of the lowest possible deductible amounts to still be qualified as a high-deductible plan). Originally, TRS was to use a $4,000 deductible, but TRTA and the Legislature worked together to get enough funding to lower it. Funding was also provided to lower the originally proposed out-of-pocket maximum.
  • Premiums and out-of-pocket costs can easily exceed a third of some retirees’ annual annuities.
  • Spousal costs for the over age 65 population are unsustainable for many retirees. Again, additional funding helped lower these costs for dependents, but many plans in the individual market may be offered for dependents with similar coverage and much lower premiums. Dependents who stay with TRS-Care and pay higher premiums are seeing value given back in the form of a no donut-hole prescription drug plan.
  • Many over age 65 plan participants have left or still may leave, which could alter the original assumptions made in negotiating the plan. These changes may be enough to further exacerbate the funding troubles with TRS-Care.
  • Many doctors and providers told retirees to leave TRS-Care if they were over the age of 65. Their information seems to have been based on the general distrust of Medicare Advantage plans by doctors and providers. TRS has a robust payment mechanism in place for providers that is better than a typical individual Medicare Advantage plan, but many providers are unaware and continue to suggest that their patients consider leaving TRS-Care and enrolling in an individual Medicare supplement plan.
  • Miscommunication and misunderstanding with providers. TRS is working diligently to explain their billing procedures and ways to work the Medicare Advantage plan, but some providers may not have that information or are unwilling to participate.
  • Many retirees left due to a distrust of Medicare Advantage, which is a poorly perceived plan within the community.

For 14 years, TRS-Care participants did not experience premium increases. TRTA and the Legislature worked together during these years, and a policy decision was made to keep health care costs stable for retirees, because the pension fund was incapable of providing cost-of-living-increases.

Lee said that in hindsight, it may have been better to have had small premium increases instead of the dramatic increases that occurred in early 2018.

The work of the Legislature to keep premiums stable should not be overlooked or undervalued, however. It was a sincere effort to keep TRS-Care affordable and accessible to retirees whose annuities remained stagnant even as medical inflation was hitting their program. It prevented the “double-whammy” of increased medical costs and no COLAs being provided.

Lee’s testimony also reminded the committee that more than a third of TRS members receive annuities of $1,000 or less per month.

Lee provided information on a vendor mix-up that created a major headache for thousands of TRS retirees. Sometime in late November or early December, a TRS vendor reportedly submitted an enrollment list to Medicare that included all TRS-Care participants, even those who had already chosen to leave the program and had selected a new plan.

Medicare rules required CMS to inform these participants that their choice of a new program had been voided and they were re-enrolled in TRS-Care. This mistake resulted in thousands of phone calls to TRS and very upset retirees who then had to go through the process of un-enrolling again. Many others simply gave up and were unwilling to go through the process of un-enrolling. Lee asked that this situation be looked into in a more in-depth manner so that these mistakes are learned from and never repeated.

Lee also suggested that some of the processes for un-enrolling could be made more efficient by using online resources. While these matters require a definitive process to ensure the integrity of a person’s decision, Lee stated that now is the time to find solutions for such issues so that they may be improved in the future.

Lee thanked the agency for looking into these problems and pledged TRTA’s assistance in helping TRS continue to meet the needs of retirees.

TRTA provided some recommendations that the Legislature and TRS could take now to improve the TRS-Care situation:

  • Replace family deductibles for pre-65 TRS-Care participants with dependents with individual deductibles. This change better reflects the reality that not every person in the plan has the same health care needs. Individual deductibles lower the out-of-pocket costs for retirees and their dependents.
  • Create a one-time opportunity for over-age 65 retirees to re-enroll in TRS-Care even if they enter the individual Medicare market after the effective date of HB 3976. This would allow retirees to determine if an alternative health care plan may fit their income needs better, without feeling trapped by the current policy that does not allow re-enrollment in TRS-Care if a participant leaves after becoming age-eligible for Medicare.
  • Re-evaluate implementing a group Medicare supplement plan. Many TRTA members have suggested they’d be willing to pay a higher premium for the option of a TRS-backed Medicare supplement plan.
  • Continue to provide education materials on why TRS-Care MA plan is better than plan in the individual market and provide updates on how this added value helps retirees. Work to eliminate fear (caused by the TRS policy for Medicare eligible participants of once you leave you’re out) as the motivator for people not wanting to leave TRS-Care.
  • Demonstrate value of the TRS-Care to the participants in real and tangible ways.
  • Create an Ombudsman within TRS to represent and address retiree issues.

Ultimately, the solution for TRS-Care will come down to funding. TRS-Care will require significant increases to its permanent base funding to prevent a future collapse.

TRTA will work with our members and the Legislature to address the difficulties we are experiencing in TRS-Care. We know our members are frustrated with these increasing costs. We also appreciate legislator perspective that they worked to keep TRS-Care from simply falling apart and provided over $700 million in additional appropriation to help sustain TRS-Care. TRTA appreciates Chair Huffman’s invitation to bring retirees into the conversation and to have us at the table.

TRTA urges its members, supporters, and elected official friends to focus on what we can all do to stay focused on the real issue, that is the funding mechanism for TRS-Care is just not enough to keep the program solvent. We have worked together through more difficult challenges in the past, and TRTA is convinced that by working collaboratively we will find good solutions to these issues now and into the future.

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05 Apr
0

Senate State Affairs Committee Meets, Discusses Future of TRS Pension Plan

Sign TRTA’s Petition requesting the Texas Legislature to fully fund the TRS Pension Plan!

The Texas Senate State Affairs Committee met on April 4 to discuss the state of public pension systems, including the Teacher Retirement System of Texas (TRS) pension plan. Senators received testimony from the Executive Directors of several state agencies, as well as actuaries.

During the Senate State Affairs meeting, senators inquired about the health of the TRS pension plan, and how changing TRS’s assumed rate of return would require additional funds from the Legislature. Read the full TRS presentation here.

The TRS Board of Trustees is scheduled to meet on April 19 and 20. During this meeting, the Board will decide on whether to change its assumed rate of return. If the Board changes the assumed rate of return, it could push back the timeline for future cost-of-living increases for retirees significantly.

During the meeting, TRS Executive Director Brian Guthrie discussed how the TRS Board is considering changing its assumed rate of return from 8 percent to either 7.25 percent or 7.5 percent. By changing the assumed rate of return to 7.25 percent, TRS would require approximately $1.6 billion from the Legislature to maintain its course for actuarial soundness. Actuarial soundness is a state requirement for providing cost-of-living increases.

Actuarial soundness is defined as the number of years required to pay off liabilities of the fund. The state law has set this standard as being less than 31 years. For retirees to receive a cost-of-living increase, the TRS fund can’t be more than the 31-year range of paying off its liabilities. At the current assumed rate of return, TRS will pay off its liabilities in 34 years.

If TRS changes its assumed rate of return to 7.25 percent and doesn’t receive additional funding, the funding period before reaching actuarial soundness would reach 86 years.

Senator Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) expressed concern that retirees were not aware of the costs associated with funding the pension plan. “We need to do a better job of getting that information out,” Nelson said.

Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston) said that the information needed to be put out into the open that “it’s a major contribution from the state.”

TRTA agrees that the investment from the state is significant. TRTA was formed more than six decades ago to ensure that its members understood the partnership between the state and public educators to properly and adequately fund the TRS pension plan. We appreciate the commitment this state has made to TRS.

Since TRS was created in the 1930s, this pension fund has always received contributions from the state and active employees. Today, employees still make contributions (7.7 percent of their paycheck) and the employer’s share is a joint responsibility between the state and the school districts (the state portion is about 4 percent of payroll and the school district portion adds the other 2.8 percent, for a combined total of 6.8 percent).

Keith Brainard, public pension fund expert and Texas Pension Review Board member, testified that Texas is getting a bargain on its contributions to the TRS pension fund as compared to other states who do not contribute to Social Security. The average contribution for most states in this category is closer to 19 percent. The contribution from Texas to TRS is 6.8 percent.

The Texas Retired Teachers Association (TRTA) is asking its members and supporters to sign (and share!!) a petition encouraging the Texas Legislature to fully fund the TRS Pension Plan. Retired educators are in desperate need of a cost-of-living increase. By changing the assumed rate of return, TRS will not impact current pension benefits, but will delay much needed cost-of-living increases. Sign the petition here!

The tradition of supporting the TRS plan must continue. The Texas Legislature has never missed a payment into the TRS fund, and TRS has never missed a payment to its annuitants!

At certain times, TRS has received much lower contributions from the state, and now is the time to work toward more adequate funding for the pension plan. From 1995 through 2007, the pension fund contribution from the state dropped from 7.31 percent to the constitutional minimum of 6 percent. That changed when the Legislature increased its contribution in 2007. Now that the TRS trustees are looking to change their rate of return assumption, TRS will need higher contributions from its funding sources or benefits may be reduced for future retirees.

The Senate State Affairs Committee will continue to discuss this topic as the next legislative session approaches. It will be imperative for legislators to be as informed as possible about retirees’ needs, as well as the great benefit TRS Texas provides to our state and our public education workforce. TRTA will keep its members up-to-date on any changes to the assumed rate of return that occur during the April 19 and 20 TRS Board meeting.

Tomorrow, the Inside Line will review the testimony given regarding TRS-Care at the Senate State Affairs Committee meeting.

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