SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Longtime Illinois state employees could be on the verge of losing the free health insurance they get in retirement.

Legislation to end the benefit was approved 31-20 by the state Senate on Thursday. It now goes to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who is pushing to cut retirement benefits.

People who spend 20 years working for the state currently don’t have to pay health insurance premiums after retiring. Under the new plan, retired state employees, legislators, judges and university employees would pay a premium based on their years working for the state and ability to pay. The plan does not include teachers.

Legislators called it a difficult move they needed to make if Illinois is going to repair unsustainable health care and pension systems. Retiree health care cost $800 million, according to the Department of Central Management Services, and employee premiums cover only 3 percent of that. About 78,000 state retirees don’t pay any premium.

“The current system is unaffordable and unsustainable,” said Sen. Jeffery Schoenberg, D-Evanston. “It will not allow us to protect the very people we wish to help if we don’t make these changes.”

Other lawmakers agreed there need to be changes — but said this plan was the wrong move or left questions unanswered.

Sen. Larry Bomke, R-Springfield, said a retroactive change to health care benefits is unconstitutional. “I don’t disagree that we need to do something about the health care and the cost, there’s no question about it,” Bomke said.

Quinn said he intends to sign the bill because it “will help ensure that our retirees continue to have access to quality health care, while also lowering the cost to taxpayers.”

Unions that represent government employees say it’s unfair to cancel a benefit that workers are counting on in retirement.

“I feel for those people,” said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno. But she said Illinois can’t afford to keep providing the free insurance, something only one other state does.

And she noted lawmakers are making a sacrifice, too.

“We are changing the benefit that we will receive in our own retirement,” the Lemont Republican said.

© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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