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PENSION COMES EARLY TO SOME; STATE WORKERS GET FULL BENEFITS AT 55.

Byline: Sherry Joe Crosby and Troy Anderson Staff Writers

Some government employees will be able to retire at a younger age after Jan. 1, just as new rules begin forcing employees in private industry to work longer to receive full Social Security benefits.

Beginning next year, the Social Security retirement age will gradually increase from 65 to 67, with smaller payouts for those who retire early.

However, a new California law allows state employees to retire at 55 and enjoy the same pension benefits five years earlier than their predecessors.

``I think it's a good illustration of how out of sync public employee retirement systems are with private sector pensions and Social Security,'' said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

The new rules, contained in Senate Bill 400, were signed into law in late September by Gov. Gray Davis. The measure also grants more lucrative retirement packages to public safety workers, such as California Highway Patrol officers, who can retire at 50.

The law underscores the generous pension benefits and choices that public sector employees enjoy.

Because of the physical demands of their jobs, workers in law enforcement and fire departments have retirement packages that encourage them to retire before the normal U.S. retirement age.

But even many state, county and city employees who do not work in public safety positions can retire as early as 50 and receive partial benefits. They can amass even greater payouts if they work longer and retire later.

``It's age-based,'' said Marsha Richter, chief executive officer at the Los Angeles County Employees Retirement Association.

``So the older you are, the higher the benefit is. With (the newest plan), the minimum age increased, but prior to that the trend was for a lowering of the age,'' she said. County employees can retire at age 50, except in a newer pension plan, where the minimum age is 55.

Oscar Peters, general manager of the Los Angeles City Employees Retirement System, said workers can receive full retirement benefits at 55 after 30 years of service, at 60 after 10 years of service and at 70 with no minimum service.

``But you can take a discounted retirement at age 55 with as low as 10 years of service,'' Peters said. ``And right now, we have a window open until 2002 that allows people with 30 years of service to retire as early as age 50.''

The retirement age has not changed for all public-sector workers. Many teachers remain in the classroom until they are 60 despite being able to retire at 55.

``Our retirement age has stayed very constant for the last decade,'' said Jim Mosman, chief executive officer of the California State Teachers Retirement System.

Retired public sector employees also enjoy better health care benefits than retired private sector workers who rely on Medicare.

``In general, our retiree health care is probably better than what many people receive,'' Richter said. ``The county has a vested interest'' because retirees without such coverage would have to seek care at county clinics or hospitals.

Retired county workers must have at least 10 years of service to receive a 40 percent insurance premium subsidy from the county. If an employee has 25 years or more of county service, he is entitled to a total subsidy of his insurance premium based on the county's indemnity plan.

Richter said, however, that county pensions aren't as rich as they seem when compared with the retirement-investment plans and other benefits that some private-sector employers offer their workers.

``If anyone works for a Fortune 500 company, they will have another retirement plan on top of Social Security,'' Richter said.

On the other hand, retirees who participate exclusively in Medicare, a federal health insurance plan, enjoy less generous benefits. Medicare is available for people who are at least 65 years or have kidney disease or receive disability benefits.

Under Medicare, patients are eligible for full hospital coverage if they have worked for at least 10 years. However, they will have to pay co-insurance fees and a $776 deductible for such care starting in 2000. Patients also must pay a $45.50 monthly premium for outpatient services and meet a $100 deductible. Medicare then pays 80 percent of all approved charges.

Those premiums do not pay for what is popularly called Medigap coverage. And in recent years, those insurance plans, covering out-of-pocket expenses not paid by Medicare, have escalated in price.

``It's not unusual to see seniors paying $100 to $200 a month for Medigap premiums,'' said Aileen Harper, who oversees Medicare advocacy services for the Center for Health Care Rights in Los Angeles.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 6, 1999
Words:770
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