On December 26, the EEOC announced a new rule that makes it easier for employers to help retirees maintain adequate healthcare benefits.  In particular, employers that provide retiree healthcare benefits may coordinate those benefits with Medicare benefits without engaging in age discrimination based on the difference in ages between younger non-Medicare-eligible retirees and older Medicare-eligible retirees.

In today’s employment landscape, fewer employers provide retiree benefits.  This forces many retired employees to rely solely on Medicare benefits to cover increasing healthcare costs—at best, a difficult situation.  As a result, many employers are searching for viable ways to continue to provide healthcare benefits to retirees.  The most common and cost-effective way for companies to do so is for employers to coordinate employer-provided benefits with benefits provided by Medicare.  This is accomplished by:

  1. supplementing the benefits provided by Medicare up to a specified level of coverage;
  2. offering benefits after retirement but only until the retiree becomes Medicare-eligible; or
  3. some combination of the two.

Although these approaches seem reasonable, courts questioned their legality under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.  In Erie County Retirees Association v. County of Erie, a controversial decision issued in 2000 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the practice of treating Medicare-eligible retirees differently than younger retirees was found to violate the ADEA.  In that case, the court held that the health insurance benefits provided to Medicare-eligible retirees and younger retirees must cost the employer the same amount.  Not surprisingly, most retiree healthcare plans violated the ADEA because employers typically spend significantly less on retiree benefits when those benefits only supplement Medicare’s coverage.  Faced with the prospect of spending more money for retiree benefits, many employers considered reducing or eliminating retiree healthcare benefits for both Medicare-eligible and younger retirees.

Perhaps recognizing the dilemma posed to employers that try to do right by their retirees, the Third Circuit recently provided an out: The court ruled that, notwithstanding the Erie decision and objections by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the EEOC has the authority under the ADEA to enact regulatory exceptions to the ADEA’s provisions.  Accordingly, the EEOC’s new rule provides an exemption from the ADEA for the longstanding employer practice of coordinating retiree benefits with Medicare coverage.  Employers and labor groups alike support the new rule.

AARP appealed  to the United States Supreme Court the Third Circuit’s decision regarding whether the EEOC has authority to create the exception to the ADEA.  It seems unlikely that the Supreme Court will agree to hear this appeal.  If it does and decides in favor of AARP (this is unlikely), the rule’s new exception to ADEA will not take effect.

The Supreme Court, however, has heard oral argument in a related case that will likely impact this area.  In Kentucky Retirement System v. EEOC, the Supreme Court considered "whether any use of age as a factor in a retirement plan is ‘arbitrary’ and thus renders the plan facially discriminatory in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act."  The case involves disability retirement benefits and normal retirement benefits in which service years or a combination of age and service years determines eligibility for both, and thus, age is an indirect factor in determining eligibility.  The Supreme Court will decide if this plan violates the ADEA.  This may or may not impact the decision in Erie.

Bottom line for employers: The ADEA no longer poses an obstacle for employers that wish to treat retirees equitably by supplementing Medicare benefits for Medicare-eligible retirees and providing greater benefits for non-Medicare-eligible retirees.