The Empire Center for New York State Policy, a project of the Manhattan Institute, issued a scary report earlier this month warning that the billions of dollars a year taxpayers spend on pay-as-you-go health insurance coverage for retired state and local government employees is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Repeatedly noting that many government retirees are too young to be eligible for Medicare - retired Jamestown firefighters, for example - the center's report notes local governments, school districts and public authorities face a total unfunded liability for public-sector retiree health insurance for today's workers of nearly $250 billion.
''This figure represents a mammoth potential transfer of wealth from future taxpayers to current government employees and retirees-for a type of benefit that is not available to the vast majority of private-sector workers,'' the report notes. ''The burden of retiree health care is clearly unsustainable and unaffordable.''
The Empire Center also notes the vast majority of New York taxpayers work for private firms that do not offer any retiree health coverage at all.
''Even compared with the shrinking number of private employers that still offer such a benefit, retiree health coverage in New York's public sector is significantly more generous; for retirees of New York City and an untallied number of local governments, retiree health care is free of charge,'' the center's report notes.
The report holds out the hope of a four-step plan for curb retiree health care costs - before it is too late:
Preserve health benefits for employees who have already retired, but require them to pay a larger share of their own premiums.
Reserve the greatest benefit to those who have worked the longest.
Establish trust funds to cover adjusted retiree health benefit liabilities, but calculate required contributions to these funds based on assumed returns from conservative, low-risk investment strategies.
Eliminate retiree health insurance coverage for all new hires and for employees who have been on the payroll for less than 10 years, and shift these workers into a retirement medical trust. Government workers would make tax-free contributions to accounts managed by their unions, which would pool and invest the money to cover medical expenses.
Will any of this really come to pass?
It had better.
''The economic decline of upstate cities such as Buffalo will only accelerate if they continue to pile a growing (retiree health benefit) burden onto their shrinking tax bases. Even in more affluent suburban areas, the rising cost of health insurance for retirees and their dependents threatens to consume more and more scarce resources needed to fund basic services,'' says the Empire Center.
But we wonder whether public officials actually are paying attention.
Are you there?