More than 500 people, including many University of Maryland faculty and staff, have signed a petition calling for the state legislature to reverse its decision to lower prescription medication benefits for retired state employees.

The petition comes in response to a Maryland General Assembly bill that would downgrade Medicare-eligible retirees’ prescription medicine coverage from the state’s coverage plan to Medicare Part D, the plan the federal government offers.

The change would cover fewer prescription drugs and could cost retirees thousands more per year, according to written testimony submitted Tuesday to the House Appropriations Committee by Peta Richkus, the state’s former secretary of general services.

In 2011, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill to transition retiree prescription drug benefits from the state plan to Medicare coverage. The bill was originally set to take effect in 2019.

The bill intends to save funds for the state by forcing the federal government to pay for prescription benefits, according to state Sen. Mike McKay (R-Garrett, Allegany and Washington).

But a 2018 U.S. District Court of Maryland decision halted the bill’s implementation, allowing the state’s retirees to keep their prescription benefits.

In July 2023, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals repealed the injunction, forcing the state to shift prescription coverage to the Medicare Part D plan starting Jan. 1, 2025. The state’s prescription drug coverage is now set to expire on Dec. 31.

[Maryland General Assembly bill could ban sports betting on college campuses]

Several faculty members at this university have criticized the decision, citing that it has created distrust among state employees.

Yang Tao, a bioengineering professor and chair-elect of the engineering school’s Senate committee, said that the state employees who were hired before 2011 were promised prescription drug coverage. But the 2011 bill is a broken promise from the state, Tao said, which could be a consequential precedent.

“The battle has been started since then requiring the state to keep the promise to employees for the credit they have earned,” Tao said. “If they break the promise today, they can break some tomorrow.”

Many state employees were not alerted to the change in coverage plans until a letter was sent in January, Maryland Matters reported.

Uzi Vishkin, an electrical and computer engineering professor, said he was shocked when he first learned of the change in coverage plans. The decision to switch coverage plans sets a dangerous precedent for the state, he said.

In response to the outcry, two bills in the Maryland General Assembly seek to restore prescription benefits for state retirees.

McKay, the state Senate bill’s sponsor, said several versions of the legislation have been introduced to restore the initial plan after the decision to shift coverage plans was made.

“A promise made should be a promise kept, ” McKay said.

Although the state has previously passed legislation to help pay for certain medications that aren’t covered by the Medicare plan, the shift will create more “bureaucracy” for about 54,000 retirees who will be affected, McKay said.

[Dozens testify for Maryland General Assembly resolution calling for ceasefire in Gaza]

Due to the switch to federal coverage plans, McKay said retirees will have to select their own Medicare plan and ensure their medications are covered. If the medication isn’t covered by the federal plan, they will have to apply to the state to have their prescription paid for, he added.

“It’s just gonna be a disaster,” McKay said. “You’re gonna have many retirees who, if you don’t pick the right bucket, you’re gonna be out of pocket.”

Retirees’ out-of-pocket expenses could be up to $10,000 or $20,000 without selecting the correct coverage plan, McKay said.

Vishkin said that the state must take “full responsibility” for the situation by passing both bills soon.

“I don’t see a reason to delay a decision because it should be a unilateral, one-time and unambiguous recognition that some major injustice was done to us and the state is going to rectify it,” Vishkin said. “This cannot suffer any delay.”

Both bills have yet to be voted on by the General Assembly. If both bills are not voted out of their original chambers by Monday, they will not be guaranteed a vote in the opposite chamber.

Jane Clark, this university’s Retired Faculty Association’s chair, said the current legislation attempting to restore the benefits is unlikely to pass the state legislature.

But there would have to be a willingness on the part of the state’s legislative leadership and Gov. Wes Moore to tackle the issue, Clark, a former public health school dean at this university, said.

The bill would disproportionately impact older employees, Clark said. Clark emphasized that the bill would be devastating for those with prescriptions.

“More importantly is that if you get very sick, such as [you] get cancer, you could end up with a $6,000, or more, a month drug bill that would not be covered by any of the formularies, which are the drug plans that are in Medicare Part D,” Clark said.