Note: This story was last updated at 10 p.m.
About 150 demonstrators protested outside the Y-12 National Security Complex on Thursday afternoon, objecting to changes in health insurance benefits that could take effect January 1.
The protesters, mostly Y-12 retirees, said they would end up paying much more for fewer benefits. They want the U.S. Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration to reverse course.
“We’re here to try to stop it,” said Charlene Edwards, who retired from Y-12 in 2006.
Under the changes, announced in late October, so-called “post-65 retirees” would be “taken to a Medicare supplement,” organizer Betty Hatmaker said. And “pre-65 retirees” will move from what is known as a “point of sale” plan to a PPO, with a high deductible and high co-pay, she said.
“We were exposed to all kinds of chemicals and radiation,” said Hatmaker, who retired from Y-12 almost four years ago. “Now, they’re trying to take our health benefits when we may need them in the future.”
Protesters said some retirees have had not had a cost-of-living increase since 2001 and others haven’t had one since 1998. Some may soon be forced to choose between buying medicine and buying groceries, they said.
The protesters expressed a range of concerns. In some cases, they said, in-network hospital stays that used to be fully covered could cost 10 percent or $3,500 per person per year, co-pays could increase from $10 to $25, and out-of-pocket expenses could increase to $6,500 per family. They said some retirees over 65, including former workers living on small retirement checks, could fall into the so-called “doughnut hole” of the Medicare Part D prescription drug program.
“We have people who probably don’t know what the ‘doughnut hole ‘is, but they’re going to find out,” Edwards said.
And they objected to moving to a mail order pharmacy, rather than being able to purchase prescriptions at local “mom and pop” pharmacies.
“I think it’s a downright shame that they’re forcing us to go to mail order pharmacy,” said protester Ann Walden, a Y-12 retiree and former accounting manager.
Keith Hyatt, who helped organize the protest, said the effects of exposure to materials used in former work at Y-12 might not show up for decades.
“Those of us who have served our time don’t deserve to have our benefits cut for ‘cost savings,'” he said.
Consolidated Nuclear Security, which began managing and operating Y-12 on July 1, said its goal has been to provide a comprehensive and flexible benefits plan that serves the needs of retirees and employees, and their families—while also complying with applicable requirements.
“Our plan is compliant, and competitive with comparable organizations,” spokesman Jason Bohne said in a statement. “We recognize that there are many changes occurring, for employees and retirees, and are providing avenues for employees and retirees to ask questions and obtain more information.”
Bohne acknowledged that the new plan is different from the current benefits program.
“We redesigned our benefits program to provide an attractive package for current and future employees, while remaining in compliance with DOE requirements,” he said.
Bohne said DOE Order 350.1 requires contractors to evaluate their benefits program against comparative organizations (those with similar types of work, and employees of similar educational and skill levels) every few years and maintain the program at 105 percent or less than the average of the comparators.
“Because of the contract competition and subsequent protests, that evaluation hadn’t occurred at Y-12 or Pantex for several years,” Bohne said. “It was overdue. Our new benefits design is intended to return our benefits package into compliance. CNS earns no fee for cost savings related to benefits changes—we did that intentionally to avoid any conflict of interest. Our new plan remains among the top benefits packages among our comparators. We are making every effort to be competitive with the industries in which we compete for talent.”
Bohne said the list of 27 comparator organizations in the CNS study is proprietary, but it includes similar organizations in government, higher education, and commercial industries—including Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Protesters see the benefits changes at Y-12 as part of a trend that started at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, grew worse at Y-12, and will likely grow even worse when it’s applied to the former K-25 site. They are concerned that pension changes could be next.
“What we see is a trend, and we want to try to stop it,” Edwards said.
They said their effort is separate from a years-long push by the Coalition of Oak Ridge Retired Employees, or CORRE, for a pension increase.
“We’re just not going to be politically correct anymore,” Hatmaker said.
Thursday’s protest was their first, but protesters said it won’t be the last. They have planned a second protest near the U.S. Department of Energy Oak Ridge Office at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, December 11.
“We are going to stand up and fight this,” Walden said. “This is just the beginning.”