SRS retirees air concerns over planned benefit changes

AIKEN — Savannah River Site retirees turned out in force Tuesday to question and share concerns over changes on the horizon for their benefits programs.

The U.S. Department of Energy, “through its contractors, is stepping away from promises made to employees at the end of the Cold War,” said Joel Harrison, one of about 600 people who attended the SRS Retiree Asso­cia­tion’s annual meeting.

The group plans to oppose what it describes as benefit changes by the DOE and its main contractor – Savan­nah River Nuclear Solutions – that will increase medical premiums and drop retirees 65 and older from the site’s health plan, instead providing a stipend to buy Medicare or Medigap plans.

Among the speakers Tuesday was U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, who pledged the resources of his staff – and a new office in Aiken – to help former nuclear weapons workers sort through the changes coming in January.

Columbia County retiree Chris Noah asked how other members of Cong­ress feel about SRS and its workers who helped win the Cold War. Wilson assured him there is broad cooperation to make sure the “Cold War warriors” are appreciated.

“It’s not always obvious, but we do work together up there, particularly when it comes to pensions and retirees’ medical benefits,” Wilson said.

Retiree Don Greene said workers need more than individual help from staff members.

“The help we need is on an overall basis,” he said. “Whatever stipend we get with this change, in seven years, it’s only worth 50 cents on the dollar.”

David Zigelman, the retiree association’s chairman, said the planned changes stem from a DOE decision to have SRS benefits evaluated against 16 other companies.

“They concluded the SRS benefits, particularly for retirees, are richer than the average company,” he said.

The DOE’s consultant, however, found there were insufficient data to compare SRS benefits with those at other companies and said SRS benefits were no richer than at other companies, Zigelman added, citing a letter obtained from the department under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Kelly Sanders, the benefits manager for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, said there will be abundant resources available to help retirees sort through the changes.

“We have nine more months until Jan. 1,” she said. “We will be making lots of contacts and lots of calls.”

There will be town-hall meetings in July and August, she said, followed by enrollment periods in November to make sure everything is in order by the time the plan goes into effect Jan. 1. A company has been hired to help with the transition.

“The company will continue to subsidize your medical care,” Sanders said. “That is not changing.”

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