Monica Taulbee-Leaming started teaching in public schools in her early 20s, straight out of college.
Under the state’s pension plan for educators, she could retire after 25 years on the job at age 48.
Leaming, the orchestra director at Farmington High School and Tibbetts Middle School, does not expect to retire at that point.
And soon, it may not be much of an option.
New Mexico public employees from teachers to parks workers may have to stay on the job longer before they can get full benefits from the state’s health care program for retired civil servants.
The Retiree Health Care Authority is considering setting a minimum age of 55 and extending the years of service required for a full insurance subsidy to 25 from 20, starting in 2020.
“I am most likely going to continue teaching past my required 25 years anyway, but for them to tell me that I have to put in 32 years instead of 25 is a kick in the face,” said Leaming.
The authority’s board has been mulling the move for years as it faces down the prospect of insolvency in less than 20 years.
But some workers have said this would leave them on the hook for higher health care costs for several years if they retire when they had originally planned.
“I realize that I could retire anyway, but without access to affordable health care through my employer, I would have to essentially start another career. And I’m not interested in doing that,” Leaming said.
The system provides subsidized health insurance premiums for eligible retirees. There are about 97,000 employees paying into the program today. It provided coverage to about 39,000 retirees as of July.
That includes former state government employees as well as former employees of cities, counties, universities and charter schools.
The amount covered depends on years of service. Retirees can now get the full subsidy after 20 years on the job.
David Archuleta, director of the Retiree Health Care Authority, said extending that period by five years and setting a minimum age would curb costs over the long term.
“It’s more about limiting our long-term obligations,” he said, noting the costs of care are rising.
The proposal comes against the backdrop of the state government’s broader reckoning with an underfunded pension system. The state’s pensions already have raised the concerns of bond rating agencies and legislators will likely demand further changes, such as demanding that workers contribute more to the systems.
To be sure, a minority of public employees affected might retire before age 55 and 25 years of service.
And Archuleta notes this would bring the program into alignment with other retirement systems.
Firefighters, police officers and correctional officers would not be affected by this move, though.
The authority plans a public hearing on the proposed rule from 9:30-11:30 a.m. Oct. 19 at its offices at 4308 Carlisle Boulevard Northeast, Suite 207, in Albuquerque. The authority also is accepting public comments through that date.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the Educational Retirement Board has a minimum age of 55.