Retired SC firefighters taking city to court over insurance

The dispute concerns whether an alleged promise by city officials that retired firefighters’ insurance would be free was legally binding


By John Monk
The State

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A nine-year-old lawsuit by 10 retired firefighters against the city of Columbia could go to court as early as this week.

The dispute concerns whether the city made legally binding commitments to firefighters years ago. Then, the retired firefighters allege that they were told — by city publications, supervisors and the city’s human relations department — that, when they retired, “retiree health insurance would be at no cost to the retiree.”

The lawsuit had gone to trial once and was tossed out of court.

But the S.C. Court of Appeals reversed that decision, slimmed down the issues and sent the case back to the lower court.

“The city does not comment on pending litigation,” a spokeswoman for the city said Friday.

Christopher Bryant, a Charleston lawyer who with Nancy Bloodgood is representing the firefighters, also declined to comment.

In 2009, City Council decided to charge retired firefighters premiums if they wanted to continue their insurance when they retired.

That decision spawned controversy.

After 9/11, firefighters had assumed a heroic stature in the United States for their willingness to risk their lives to save others. Also, the smoke that firefighters inhale on the job results in chronic health and respiratory problems later in life.

But city officials said in a 2009 meeting that they faced a $96 million expense if they were to continue giving free health insurance to the retired firefighters.

“Every one of you, who has retired and given your life to the city, we understand,” then-Mayor Bob Coble told the firefighters, including one using an oxygen tank to breath. “But we are dealing with issues that require us to do something.”

But the retired firefighters said they, too, have financial issues.

Some became firefighters, a profession with traditionally low pay, because of what they considered promises by the city to give them a good deal on health insurance when they retired.

While other retired firefighters were affected by the city’s policy change, only 10 sued.

They are seeking the reimbursement of all premiums they have paid since 2009 and reinstatement of free health insurance with no reduction in benefits.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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