Retired University of Maine Law School professor Nancy Wanderer stands on her front stoop in Falmouth on Friday. The University of Maine System Board of Trustees recently told its roughly 2,900 retirees that their union-negotiated health care plan would be canceled at the end of the calendar year. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

FALMOUTH, Maine — When Nancy Wanderer planned for retirement after teaching at the University of Maine School of Law for 25 years, she didn’t expect a cancer scare.

Wanderer, 72, is in remission from multiple myeloma, a type of bone cancer she was diagnosed with 11 years ago. But after a battle that included months of chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant, her cancer would “never be cured.” She needs medication in order to keep it at bay.

To keep the myeloma from returning, Wanderer must take a drug called Revlimid for the rest of her life. The drug, which she’s taken for the past decade, costs more than $14,000 a month.

The health care plan she’s had since she retired covered all but a co-pay of $51. This summer, the University of Maine System said it would be switching to a new plan in 2021 as part of a plan expected to save $2.5 million annually and affecting 2,875 retirees and dependents.

After some research, Wanderer found that the plans most beneficial to her are much more costly. Her premium would jump from $41 a month to $188, and her co-pay for Revlimid would jump to $3,500 in the first month and $800 a month after until she reaches a $6,550 deductible for catastrophic coverage for prescription drugs. Beyond that, Wanderer would be eligible for reimbursements by setting up a special account and submitting forms each month.

The group’s current Aetna coverage, a defined-benefit plan where the benefits are outlined ahead of time, would be replaced with a defined-contribution plan with Aon Retiree Health Exchange, which provides people with a certain amount of money to put toward undefined benefits. The university has promoted the change as a way to save money by providing more options and cheaper care by allowing those insured to be part of a bigger risk pool. University officials anticipate the plan will save the university $2.5 million annually.

But many retirees said the new proposed program means narrower coverage, costlier co-pays and higher deductibles for them. It also shifts the process of requesting reimbursement for money used for health care from the insurance company to the person covered. Worse, the plan was sprung on them in the middle of a pandemic.

Retirees who don’t often use their health insurance will likely pay less under Aon because they can switch to a cheaper plan that covers less, said Jim McClymer, a physics professor at the University of Maine in Orono and president of the Associated Faculties of the University of Maine, or AFUM, a union that represents professors in the system.

But those who depend on it, like Wanderer, “will almost inevitably be worse off” — some of them “horribly worse off,” he said.

AFUM filed a grievance last month, after McClymer argued that system officials should have negotiated with the union, especially after they agreed to a 20 percent increase to retiree health care premiums that went into effect in 2017. Officials believe that the university is not legally required to bargain with retirees over their retirement health care plan.

Even though the union negotiated the agreement while the retirees were active employees, it no longer represents those individuals once they’re retired, they argue. The university’s labor relations team has discussed how the transition to Aon will affect current employees.

“While the law does not require us to negotiate about our current retirees who are not members of our UMS labor unions, we’ve partnered with Aon to provide individual outreach and support to help every single retiree and their dependents make informed choices to enroll in new plans that provide greater flexibility and benefit options, usually at a significant cost savings to our retirees and their dependents,” university system spokesperson Dan Demeritt said.

The University of Maine System began seeking a new supplemental health care plan for retirees more than two years ago, Carol Corcoran, interim chief human resources officer for the system, said in September. In early February, it selected insurance broker Aon among five bidders.

The system has argued that the plan will allow retirees to select a plan that will better fit their needs. Wanderer calls the switch to a new plan a “betrayal of trust.”

“So many of us decided to teach within the University of Maine System, in part, because of benefits we thought we were going to receive after retirement,” she said.

BDN writer Caitlin Andrews contributed to this story.