Less than a week after a Baptist News Global report about Georgia Baptist retirees unexpectedly losing promised lifetime medical benefits, the head of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board announced a reversal of plans.
During an inspirational rally Sunday night, Nov. 7, preceding the state Baptist convention’s annual meeting in Jonesboro, Ga., Executive Director Thomas Hammond shared as “a point of personal privilege” that money had been found to restore retiree health benefits that otherwise would have ended Dec. 31.
Retired convention employees — many of them in their 80s and 90s — said their phones began ringing and multiple texts were dropping into their mobile devices within an hour of the announcement. Friends wanted them to know that their pleas for help had been heard.
The BNG story published on Monday, Nov. 1, detailed how Hammond had led the convention and its Executive Committee to adopt a 2022 budget that cut funding for about 170 retirees to receive various forms of financial support for supplemental medical insurance. All the retirees had been led to believe this would be a lifetime benefit due to their service to the convention, and some had opted for early retirement buyouts based specifically on this as a financial factor.
Foundation to the rescue
Hammond first announced the reversal in a Sunday afternoon email to Executive Committee members, one of two policy-making bodies that had approved the benefit cuts. In that email, Hammond disclosed that the Georgia Baptist Health Care Ministry Foundation would provide a $700,000 grant to cover the retiree costs effective for 2023. (A final payment from GBMB on Dec. 31 would have ended the program but provided some reimbursement for 2022.)
Hammond said foundation trustees had “voted unanimously last week to provide a stipend for GBMB retirees who have been affected by the elimination of the post-retirement benefits after 2022.” He added that the restored benefits would be effective in 2023 and would be subject to an annual renewal of the grant.
“God has answered our prayers! We could not be more grateful,” he said.
Foundation Director Larry Wynn joined Hammond on the podium Sunday night to explain that under no circumstance did anyone in the executive office approach him for the funds.
Hammond and Wynn said details of the grant will be determined by foundation trustees over the next few months. But retirees contacted immediately after the announcement said they cannot wait that long for information because they’ve been forced to sign up for other plans.
Shuford Jones and Gwen Newman, two retirees quoted in the BNG story, said they had just signed up with new Medicare supplement plans after nearly six weeks of painstaking research on the internet.
“This is exciting news … if it is true,” Jones said. “So, what do we do now? We were informed in September that we no longer had insurance and the board would be providing a final stipend to us for 2022, so we scrambled to buy insurance. Until then some of us had been provided coverage that didn’t cost us anything.
“So, do I now cancel the Aetna policy I just purchased for my wife and myself? Will the board reimburse us for out-of-pocket expenses? We need to know very soon,” he said.
“This is exciting news … if it is true.”
Gwen Newman, a widow quoted in the original story, also expressed gratitude for the change in direction.
“I’m excited,” she said moments after the announcement. “I did not expect it and am not sure how it will work if they move us off of our current policy which provided full coverage.
“But like others I have talked to, I now have this new policy which I just purchased. What do I do … keep it or cancel it?”
The devil is in the details
As some said, the devil is in the details.
While they are grateful for the foundation coming to their rescue, they note that the grant on which their future security depends is tied to being renewed on an annual basis.
To balance the 2022 budget, both the Pastor Wellness ministry and retiree benefits were removed from the convention’s traditional Cooperative Program funding channel. That is when the Executive Committee, on a recommendation from the higher-ranking Administration Committee, decided to accept an offer from the Health Care Ministry Foundation not only to fully fund Pastor Wellness but to double its budget by nearly $800,000.
But retirees were left out in the cold. Until Sunday night, when the additional grant was announced.
The foundation only funds grants based on the previous year’s return on its investments, which fluctuates in good times and bad times. Its core ministry is helping churches and associations provide health clinics as part of their evangelistic outreach.
The foundation only funds grants based on the previous year’s return on its investments, which fluctuates in good times and bad times.
In a Sunday night story shortly after the announcement, The Christian Index, the Georgia Baptist newspaper owned by the convention, stated that “in October, a member of the foundation’s board of trustees, Raymond Moody, asked if the foundation could begin to cover the cost of the post-retirement benefits.
The Index quoted Hammond as saying: “Chairman Darey Kittle responded by saying he thought it would be a good idea. Other trustees felt it would be appropriate, but no official decision was made. I knew in my heart we had 15 months to work on this possibility, because I knew we were going to take care of them through 2022” — a reference to the final Dec. 31 stipend to be paid under the original plan.
The Index then said that last week — days after BNG reported on the elimination of benefits — “Larry Wynn met with the Executive Leadership Team of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board and brought the matter up again, and they agreed health care foundation’s generous offer was the answer to the prayers of the Mission Board’s staff and the retirees.
“Wynn said covering the cost of the Mission Board retirees post-retirement benefits was well within the organization’s wheelhouse, and that’s why members of the board of trustees decided to do it.”
However, in the Nov. 1 BNG story, Wynn said the idea of the foundation helping retirees was “not something we have looked at. We are providing funds for pastor health (through the Pastor Wellness ministry) so they can serve churches better, but we have never provided funds for salaries or retirement benefits.”
Despite whatever questions remain, retirees said they are grateful to have been heard.
“I am elated, I could not be happier tonight,” Jones said. “But I have to admit that I did not expect it whatsoever. Stranger things have happened, but not many. We are hoping for the best.”
On Monday, Nov. 8, the board’s Executive Committee will take up the policy reversal that has been handed to them. Presumably, that will include decisions about how to apply the grant funding and whether all retirees now will receive a set amount or whether older retirees who had been on a fully funded plan will be restored to that same level of support.