An Interview with Marianne Pizzitola
J. Taylor Basker
In Sicilian legend. Aetna, a beautiful nymph, who inhabited the island living in its highest mountain, had the skill of alluring men and making them do anything she wanted. On our NYC Island, many men were lured by this siren’s namesake Aetna Medicare Advantage. Mayor Adams, Mike Mulgrew of the UFT, Harry Nespoli of the Municipal Labor Council, Henry Garrido of DC 37 and other union leaders were ensnared by Aetna Insurance’s sleek Medicare Advantage plan, that promised everything, but led them into her volcanic lava bed, melting benefits of NYC retirees. Even the Speaker of the Council, Adrianne Adams, a female, was tricked by the attractive packaging.
However, thanks to a Sicilian female, who led hundreds of retirees in protests, court cases, expert PR, and political maneuvering, a judge ruled that this siren return to its cave and leave its hands off NYC retirees’ Medicare. Marianne Pizzitola, a retired FDNY worker, led the powerful charge to protect the health benefits of NYC retirees. She founded the FDNY EMS Retirees Association, a Not For Profit organization to help members of the FDNY EMS in retirement by advocating for their continued benefits. When the city announced it was switching its retirees from Medicare to Medicare Advantage she founded the NYC Organization of Public Service Retirees, Inc, an organization to unite retirees, defend and protect hard earned benefits in retirement. Many, retired for 20, 30, 40 and even more than 50 years, infirm, disabled, disabled 9/11 responders, line of duty widows, all risked losing their Federal Medicare and City supplemental coverage and be forced into a managed plan with many restrictions. This group stopped them.
Marianne Pizzitola. Photo from FaceBook page.
The Court had issued a preliminary injunction in July, with Supreme Court Justice Lyle E. Frank noting that the retirees “have shown by clear and convincing evidence” that implementation of the new Aetna Medicare Advantage plan would likely violate their rights in numerous ways. Justice Frank also ruled that “should this plan go forward; irreparable harm would result” to countless retirees. But on August 11, the New York County Supreme Court issued a final ruling permanently stopping the City from forcing a quarter-million elderly and disabled retirees off their longstanding Medicare insurance and onto an inferior type of insurance called “Medicare Advantage.”
Pizzitola commented “This is now the third time in the last two years that courts have had to step in and stop the City from violating retirees’ healthcare rights. We once again call on the City and the Municipal Labor Committee to end their ruthless and unlawful campaign to deprive retired municipal workers of the healthcare benefits they earned. Knowing after every win, the City has found a way to go around the Judge’s decision, the City Council should support Intro 1099 sponsored by Councilman Charles Barron and stop this administration from wasting taxpayer dollars appealing righteous decisions by the Court. NYC Retirees earned their right to Federal Medicare and we relied on the promise we would have this benefit through our lifetime. We hope this decision will help retirees nationwide stop their former unions and employer from privatizing the Federal Public Health Benefit of Medicare so we can live the rest of our lives in peace.” The Mayor’s office, who always refused to meet with the retirees, issued a statement that was both condescending and filled with untruths, accused the Judge’s decision of “creating confusion.”
Arlyne LeShack, a retired teacher and former UFT union delegate, expressed the relief of thousands of City retirees. She had been very concerned with the support that the Municipal Labor Committee gave to Medicare Advantage. She had a unique reason – for years she had worked as a volunteer with a Medicare Rights group helping people cope with problems. In her experience most people she helped had problems with Medicare Advantage. Often doctors needed were not in the networks. Prior authorization was needed to be given for medical procedures and this process was lengthy and often unsuccessful.
Pizzitola reveals that the victory was messy and contends that the battle is not yet over. The City immediately filed an appeal to Judge Frank’s decision. There was a civil war in the City Council. The Speaker, Adrienne Adams, although no relation to the Mayor, loyally and passionately led the battle for his agenda. Any Council member who objected was threatened with loss of funding and committee assignments. A freshman council member who introduced legislation against the change, Amanda Farias, District 18, the Bronx, backed off and gave the legislation to others. It went to the Legislative Committee where it was successfully buried, using Kremlin-like tactics. It was sponsored anonymously by many, sent back to Council, then declared illegal since they needed all the sponsors’ permission to proceed, now impossible due to anonymity. Then a new bill was introduced by Charles Barron, Intro 1099, but this was also declared to be illegal by the Speaker as a violation of Labor law, the Taylor Law and Collective Bargaining. However, Barron had stripped the bill down to essentials in just two sentences to make it sustainable. “This bill would require the City to offer Medicare-eligible city retirees and their Medicare-eligible dependents at least one Medigap plan with benefits equivalent to or better than those available to city retirees and their dependents as of December 31, 2021. The bill would not impair employee organizations from negotiating terms and conditions of employment for their employee members.”
Yet this bill is still not passed; as of this writing Pizzitola counted just 17 signed in but 34 are needed. Fortunately, our Erik Bottcher has signed but it is crucial that all Council members be convinced. The Speaker’s staff – especially Jeffrey Baker, Deputy Chief of Staff of Legislation and Policy and Nicholas Connell, Assistant Deputy Director, have been brutal. The Office of Management & Budget (OMB) run by Kenneth Godiner, contended this change is essential for NYC financial security, claiming that $600 million a year would be saved, which is not true – the current costs are $439 million, and no one admits that the City has now the largest budget reserve ever. This lack of transparency persists in other areas: Mayor Adams sits on confidential documents about post-9/11 air quality and its danger to responders and survivors, to protect the city from liability.
City Comptroller Brad Lander, who backed the retirees, accurately identified the Medicare Advantage v. Medicare problem as having state and federal implications. “As a matter of public policy, beyond the scope of our office . . . I was and remain seriously concerned about the privatization of Medicare plans, overbilling by insurance companies, and barriers to care under Medicare Advantage. It is vital that all seniors—and all New Yorkers—get quality health coverage as a basic human right.”
Pizzitola says she has no crystal ball to predict what will happen. She is under no illusions and believes retirees must remain vigilant and that the battle will continue. She quotes “tell a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.” She stresses the need for ongoing legal and financial support. This generation of retirees came from the struggle for Civil Rights, fought against the Vietnam and Iraq wars and are comfortable with marches, petitions and protests. She worries that the next generation of retirees will be more pliable by the powers of big money and political persuasion. But meanwhile retirees with walkers, wheelchairs, canes, heaing aids but loud voices, are still around to save them – with the Sicilian Siren from Staten Island leading them, keeping the nymph Aetna in her cave.