Randy Bodge, a former member of our union, started his career with the Maine Department of Transportation in 1991 as a drawbridge operator at the old Richmond-Dresden bridge. Over the next two decades, he worked on all the region’s bridges: Carleton, Southport, South Bristol, Barters Island, plus the Maine State Ferry Service’s transfer bridges. He worked his way up to supervisor. Then in 2013 came his stage-four diagnosis with carcinoid tumors. He was in his early 50s.
“They took out part of my intestines. They took out my gall bladder,” Randy, now age 58, recalled on January 7.
A career participant in the Maine Public Employees Retirement System, Randy in 2013 had provided MainePERS with documentation of his stage-four cancer diagnosis and medical condition in his application for disability retirement. He thought all he’d have to fight was cancer in the coming years. He was wrong. He and his wife, Kathryn, were stunned in 2013 by MainePERS’ denial of his disability-retirement claim.
Under the retirement system’s rules, Randy won’t be able to begin drawing on his pension for another four years, at age 62, under any circumstances. He said he doesn’t know if he’ll live to age 62. Further complicating his situation: If he were to draw out all of his retirement contributions and take a lump-sum payment in lieu of a future pension, the income from doing so would make him ineligible for the Medicare health insurance he’s currently receiving.
Randy said he and Kathryn have been struggling to get by ever since MainePERS denied his disability-retirement application. Kathryn works two jobs to support them. She works in nutrition at a nearby school and runs a pet-grooming business at home.
The same year of his cancer diagnosis, Randy said Social Security quickly determined him disabled. However, even though he had over 40 quarters of Social Security service credits from work prior to his state service, he was denied monthly Social Security Disability Insurance payments because he hadn’t paid into Social Security for the five years prior to his cancer diagnosis; because he’d been working for the State and participating in MainePERS, he wasn’t paying into Social Security. He ultimately was deemed eligible for Medicare, which provides him with health insurance, but not before he drained his life savings account on health insurance premiums through COBRA.
Despite his ongoing chemotherapy, Randy said he is putting his energy into a legislative effort to fix the disability-retirement system at MainePERS so that no one else has to go through what he’s been enduring.
“The chronic pain and symptoms involved with this cancer, as well as the severe anxiety, depression and stress, were and are unbearable,” explained Randy, who travels to Augusta for chemotherapy treatments every three weeks. “I felt as if I was raked across the coals as if I was caught stealing. The procedure in which they hold hearings I find degrading, demoralizing and bluntly cruel.”
Currently, the disability retirement program is structured in a way that allows a medical board to make disability determinations without ever examining the employees, and it grants the system the authority to make the determination of who is awarded disability retirement, even in appeals, without any real oversight from an independent decision maker.
Randy is joining our union’s efforts to persuade the Maine Legislature to pass LD 1978, An Act to Improve the Disability Retirement Program of the Maine Public Employees Retirement System, sponsored by Senator David Miramant. LD 1978 would require MainePERS to use independent hearing officers for disability retirement appeals. It would abolish medical board reviews in favor of independent medical examinations to help in decision making. Randy and many other workers testified for LD 1978 on January 29 at a hearing before the Committee on Labor and Housing. See the news coverage here and here.
“It’s disgusting what my wife and I have been put through,” Randy said. “We have but one fight we should be stressed out about: it’s cancer.”