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Judge threatens city of Medford with contempt

In a case that will have statewide repercussions, Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Mark Schiveley stopped short Friday of finding the city of Medford in contempt for failing to offer health insurance coverage to retired employees.

While making it clear he was running out of patience, Schiveley gave attorneys for the city and the retired employees an additional two weeks to hash out differences in creating a health plan for retirees who have not reached the age of 65, as required by state law.

City officials have estimated 104 management employees and 190 other union employees would foot the $1.5 million annual increase to support a proposed insurance plan that would cover the retirees. In addition, the city itself would pay $290,000.

The city estimates the overall cost of coverage would increase on average from $1,059 to $1,469 a month for most employees, with the city paying a portion of that increase. That amount likely will change after the attorneys resolve their differences.

In 2009, Schiveley ruled in two separate but related cases that the retired city employees are entitled to bridge health insurance until they reach age 65.

In February, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled the city of Medford must provide health benefits to its retirees, or prove that it is unable to do so.

Portland attorney Stephen Brischetto, representing Joseph Bova, said his client wants the city to offer the same type of coverage that it does to existing employees. Bova, who no longer works for the city, also would pay the same premium, he said.

Brischetto said retired city employees have found it difficult to find other insurance providers because of pre-existing health conditions. In some cases, they had to opt for plans with high premiums or plans that gave them lesser coverage.

The case is being watched by other municipalities throughout Oregon because they offer the same type of insurance and would have to provide similar coverage to retirees.

In addition, other lawsuits, led by Medford's former City Attorney Ron Doyle and Bova have been winding their separate ways through state and federal courtrooms for nearly six years.

The courts have treated the two cases differently because Doyle was retired when he filed the legal action, while Bova was still employed with the city.

Separate age discrimination cases were combined in a bench trial to be heard at the same time by Schiveley, who has presided over other aspects of the ongoing lawsuits.

At issue is whether the city discriminated against older employees when City Manager Mike Dyal rejected Doyle's legal objections and changed the city's insurance coverage in 2002.

About 80 city employees have hired an attorney because they don't think it is fair they should pay higher premiums for an insurance policy that would cover retirees.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.