In Good Hands? 

Lawsuit alleges Metro Benefit Board kept life insurance benefit hush-hush

Lawsuit alleges Metro Benefit Board kept life insurance benefit hush-hush

Nearly 25 years of active duty on the Metro police force debilitated Sgt. Clyde Taylor. When he retired on disability in 1992 at the age of only 55, his body was wracked with hypertension and carotid artery disease. Within eight years, he had open heart and abdominal surgeries before dying of multiple strokes in April 2000.

After he retired on disability, Taylor could have applied for a free, no-strings-attached benefit allowing him to maintain his city-sponsored life insurance coverage of $50,000 for no premium. The purpose of the benefit—referred to as a waiver of premium—is to aid disabled Metro retirees who might otherwise have trouble receiving adequate life insurance coverage. But Taylor never knew about the benefit. So when he passed away last year, his wife Norma received the standard death benefit of $7,500—not enough even to make a dent on the mortgage payments and income she lost during the years she spent tending to her ailing husband.

Now Taylor and two other widows of Metro employees have filed suit against the city claiming that the Metro Employee Benefit Board, charged with administrating health plans, pensions, and life insurance, breached its fiduciary duties. They claim that the board, long considered one of the most inept departments in Metro, failed to inform their spouses that they could maintain their $50,000 coverage. And while some of the allegations in the lawsuit deal with events that are more than 10 years old, each of the plaintiffs say that they had persistently asked the board and its staff to review their cases up until as recently as last year, only to became ensnared in a bureaucratic web of red tape and arrogance.

“My husband gave 25 years of his life to this city, and I think it’s wrong that we’ve been treated this way,” Taylor says. “And I am not the only widow who has been treated this way.

Fellow plaintiff Bobbie Duke would agree. Her husband worked in the Sheriff’s Department for 10 years before going on disability in August 1986. He also never applied for the waiver-of-premium benefit, and the death payment she received was also the standard $7,500.

“If I would have received the $50,000 payment, I would have had a totally different life,” says Duke, whose husband Blant died of a massive heart attack 13 years ago. “It’s been a struggle ever since he left.”

The lawsuit, filed in Chancery Court earlier this month by attorney Dan Alexander, asks for unspecified damages and attorney fees. The city is not yet denying the allegations in the lawsuit, but instead is researching whether and/or how the Metro agency informed disabled employees about continuing their coverage after retirement.

“I don’t know if this information was provided to them or not,” says Metro attorney Michael B. Bligh, who is representing the board. “That’s what we’re trying to find out.”

As it is now, retiring employees who apply for disability are orally informed about their waiver-of-premium benefit, according to John Kennedy, Metro’s assistant director of human resources. But even he is not sure how long the board has been doing that.

If employees were informed about the benefit in years past, it nevertheless wasn’t widely known. At a Benefit Board meeting last year, longtime member B.R. Hall called the waiver-of-premium benefit “the best kept secret in Metro Government.”

“That was my way of saying it’s been there, but it hasn’t been highly publicized,” says Hall, who also serves as the president of the Nashville Firefighters and Fire Service Employees Association. “For years and years before I got on the board, I didn’t know anything about it.”

Phyllis West, who chairs the board,

admits that few employees know they can maintain their life insurance even after disability. “You ask anybody in Metro Government about the waiver-of-premium benefit, and I guarantee you they don’t know about it,” she says.

West says she’s not surprised by the lawsuit, adding that for years she has asked the board staff about whether Metro employees were being informed about the waiver-of-premium benefit. “I got the runaround,” she says. “I sent e-mail after e-mail, and they would not respond.”

The plaintiffs also became frustrated when they tried to discuss their plight with the board staff. Last year, after considerable prodding, Benefit Board staffers told two of the plaintiffs to mail forms requesting a review of their life insurance benefits to Aetna U.S. Healthcare, which administers the policy. When Aetna refused, the plaintiffs went back to the board, which, in turn, denied their attempts at relief. At that point, the plaintiffs decided that litigation was their only remedy.

“I would hate to think this was done intentionally,” says plaintiff Dorothy Bush, whose late husband Roy, a 20-year employee of the Metro Finance Department, never received the waiver-of-premium benefit. “But once this was brought to their attention, they did nothing about it.”

Metro Finance Director David Manning, who also sits on the board, would not comment specifically on the lawsuit, but he did seem to substantiate its broader complaints. “I will say that the Benefit Board has experienced many problems over the years on communicating information to employees,” says Manning, who has been working during the last two years to reform the Metro agency. “You have to remember, the board got into a very bad place over a very long time.”

At-large Council member Leo Waters, a fierce board critic, agrees. “We just haven’t done a good job letting people know their full range of benefits.”

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