WESTFIELD, NJ – The detective was getting ready for work when he died from heart failure on May 22.
A 47-year-old Scotch Plains man, Eric Lieberman had served with the Westfield Police Department for 27 years before his death. The department hung purple and black banners outside of its headquarters in his honor, and the town rallied with a T-shirt sale fundraiser in his honor.
Six months later, Lieberman’s widow, Tammy Lieberman, is fighting stage IV breast cancer, and town officials have told her that to continue receiving the insurance paying for her cancer care, she will have to fund about $25,000 in continuation of coverage payments next year.
Since her husband died before officially retiring, the PBA contract does not mandate Lieberman, 44, be given the benefits, something she believes the town is using as a loophole to avoid providing her the health benefits.
“Had he been retired, there would be no conversation, it would just be something I got,” Lieberman said. “But since he worked past the retirement age, it’s something they have the choice about.”
The payments for continued coverage would be made under a federal law known as COBRA, which allows health benefit recipients to self-fund health some plans when their employer-based coverage expires.
While municipal officials declined to discuss specifics of Lieberman’s situation, Town Administrator Jim Gildea said it is important the municipality’s obligation to retain the family’s privacy not be misconstrued as a lack of assistance or compassion.
“The town has exceeded its legal obligations in an effort to assist Detective Lieberman’s family during this trying time,” Gildea said. “The town has at all times treated the Lieberman family compassionately and consistent with the law, has assisted the family in obtaining and maintaining all available benefits, just as it has in handling other similarly tragic situations.”
The New Jersey Police and Fireman’s Retirement System leaves it up to municipalities to decide on the provision of benefits to deceased retirees families. “Some local employers have agreed to pay for the coverage of spouses or partners of deceased retirees,” the guidelines state.
Westfield’s contract with PBA Local No. 90 grants a retired employee with at least 15 years of service with the town and at least 25 years of service in the Police and Fireman’s Retirement system, health coverage for the employee and his or her dependents at retirement.
Under the contract, Eric Lieberman would have qualified, had he retired before his death.
If a retired PBA member dies before reaching 65 and leaves a surviving spouse and dependents, the contract stipulates, those family members will continue receiving coverage until the spouse reaches 65.
Obtaining coverage under the Affordable Care Act, Lieberman said, would be cost-prohibitive because of her cancer, she said.
Originally from Roselle Park, Lieberman has two boys, ages 19 and 14. She has since moved to Florida, where family members can better care for her.
Matthew Vance, a Montclair-based attorney specializing in fringe benefit plans, including those for public employees, said public contracts typically address the issue of health benefits for deceased members.
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“It is very rare when there is a coverage loophole,” Vance said. “On the other hand, it is very common for local municipalities to opt out of the state health benefits program.”
Westfield has opted out of the state plan, something municipalities often do to provide employees with richer benefits than those available through New Jersey, he said.
“What we’re seeing in Westfield is that there is a loophole that causes loss of group coverage for certain people,” Vance said. “The problem that is brought into [view] by that issue is a problem that policy-makers have been struggling with since the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt.”
What do other towns do?
New Jersey municipalities handle benefits for the families of fallen police and firefighters in different ways. In nearby Clark, the township’s contract with the PBA Local 125 is clear.
“In the event an employee, who has completed at least 25 years of service is either killed in the line-of-duty or dies prior to retirement, the employer shall provide the employee’s spouse and dependents with the same health/hospitalization benefits as those which would have been provided had the employee retired,” Clark’s PBA contract states.
In Cranford, surviving spouses of those who have died in the line of duty receive the current dental, hospitalization and prescription plan benefits until the surviving spouse’s remarriage or surviving spouses death, the contract stipulates. Survivors of an officer who died while employed, but not on duty, receive a different set of fringe benefits.
Garwood’s PBA contract requires 20 years of service for the borough to pay retiree health benefits, but similar to in Westfield, the contract does not address what happens when an officer dies prior to retirement.
Lieberman, for her part, is undergoing daily chemotherapy treatments and doctors have told her she is among a minority of patients with her diagnosis to survive with the disease for more than five years.
Having to fight to pay for her treatment, while fighting for her life has been taxing.
“I just don’t have the energy,” Lieberman said. “I just don’t have it in me to fight like this.”
Email Staff Writer Matt Kadosh at firstname.lastname@example.org; Follow him on Twitter: @MattKadosh