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Double health plans for $148,000 judges?

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Nov. 2, 2009 at 8:25 pm |
November 2, 2009 6:29 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

If you’re a judge, you’re a lawyer. If you’re a lawyer, you’ve probably had to defend the indefensible at some point in your career.

That’s the best explanation we can come up with for the way some Pierce County judges are fighting to hang on to the luxury of double medical coverage.
County Executive Pat McCarthy has been scrounging for any kind of savings in her recession-struck budget. One thing she’s targeting is the $182,000 the county pays to extend health insurance to members of the Pierce County Superior Court, all of whom are already covered by the state’s health plan.

You cut that $182,000, and the judges will still have coverage. They just won’t have the almost unparalleled extravagance of coverage by two plans at once, an arrangement that virtually eliminates out-of-pocket medical expenses.

Presiding Judge Bryan Chushcoff (who may be dutifully representing his “clients” on the bench) offers a double-tiered defense.

First, he says, McCarthy is threatening to breach an explicit ban in the Washington Constitution against cutting the compensation of sitting judges during their current term.

But McCarthy responds that health benefits aren’t “compensation” in the constitutional sense. King County has eliminated double coverage without creating a legal crisis. In any case, if the judges were only standing up for principle, they could render the whole argument moot by simply declining to renew their county coverage.

That still leaves the second-tier defense, however. Chushcoff says many of the judges are getting on in years and don’t have working spouses, so their medical bills could be “financially devastating” without overlapping policies.

Welcome to the world the rest of us live in. A whole lot of people are making do with a single health plan – often a plan far less generous than the state’s. There are quite a few others who have lost the coverage they had because the recession took their jobs away.

Financial devastation probably means one thing to an insured judge pulling in $148,000 a year and quite something else to an uninsured working-class mother who’s just discovered her son has cancer.

Chushcoff says the judges have offered to share the cost of their premiums on the same basis other county employees may have to under the new budget. That would leave the double coverage in place, though.

The bench could challenge McCarthy’s move in court. The public would probably love to hear highly paid judges defend such a lavish benefit – a benefit financed mostly by taxpayers with far less money and health coverage.

It’s surprising the judges are pressing the issue at all. With their collective courtroom experience, they must know a losing case when they see one.

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