Only 5 percent of city retirees receiving Medicare are 'healthy'

The statistic was so attention-grabbing that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stopped and repeated it: Nearly half of Baltimore's municipal employees and retirees have a "critical or chronic" illness

Rawlings-Blake emphasized the statistic as part of last month's speech at the Walters Art Museum, during which she released a consultants' report about the city's long-term finances. The unhealthy state of Baltimore's workforce contributes to the high cost of municipal health care, the mayor said.

"We need to improve the wellness of our workforce to reduce costs by promoting fitness and smoking cessation," she said. "Our workforce is unhealthy, and it's driving up our costs."

And while the statement might have conjured up, in some minds, the image of a chain-smoking, overweight city worker, the data on which Rawlings-Blake based the statistic tell a slightly different story. It's Baltimore's retirees, not necessarily current city workers, who are noticeably more unhealthy than health plan participants elsewhere.

Of Baltimore's 16,475 active members who receive health care benefits, 49 percent are considered "healthy," and 21 percent of Baltimore workers either have or are "at risk" for a chronic or critical illness.

However, the 15,213 retirees classified as receiving "Medicare Primary" benefits are not as closely in line with national averages. Only 5 percent are considered "healthy" and 77 percent either have or are "at risk" for a critical or chronic illness.

In comparison, 50 percent of BlueCross BlueShield CareFirst members in other jurisdictions are healthy and 23 percent are at risk for serious illness. Those national averages include both current workers and retirees.

The mayor is correct that city workers and retirees who develop critical or chronic illnesses are the greatest drivers of health care costs. Of active workers, the 9 percent of employees with illnesses account for 57 percent of costs. Of retirees, the 54 percent who have developed critical or chronic illnesses account for 86 percent of costs.

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