Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, listens to questions from the Caribou City Council in this 2019 file photo. Credit: BDN file photo

AUGUSTA, Maine — Top Democrats in the Maine Legislature asked the state university system this week to halt impending changes to retiree health care benefits, saying the changes were “callous” and made in bad faith during the coronavirus pandemic.

The change would shift nearly 2,900 retirees and their dependents from a defined benefit plan — where the benefits are outlined ahead of time — to a defined contribution plan, which provides a certain amount of money to access undefined benefits. The plan is offered to Medicare coverage gaps for certain retirees and is expected to save the system $2.5 million annually.

Retirees and union officials slammed the University of Maine System for making the changes — first reported by the Bangor Daily News this month — without bargaining or public discussion. In a Monday letter to Chancellor Dannel Malloy, most Maine Senate Democrats and 47 of the party’s House members equated the change to “pulling the rug out” from members.

“Forcing retirees, who were promised a lifetime of coverage, to change the health care benefits that they bargained for and to switch providers with little notice in the middle of a pandemic simply isn’t right,” reads the letter, headlined by Democratic leaders including Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash.

The lawmakers also criticized the timing of the rollout, noting that the plan requires members to enroll with a private company that shops on the Affordable Care Act marketplace to find plans within months of the sign-up deadline. They said expecting retirees to make sure a switch is made was “unrealistic and to some extent callous.”

The university system has said proposals for the plan were not publicly discussed because it was deemed to be a personnel matter. The change is expected to be in place by Jan. 1.

While the university system is expecting revenue shortfalls this year due to the pandemic, the change was discussed before the virus was first recorded in Maine in March. The system is expected to reduce its expenses by $2.2 million under Gov. Janet Mills’ curtailment orders, about 1 percent of its $224 million annual budget.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated how many Maine Senate Democrats signed the letter.