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Downstate judge dismisses state retirees' health-care lawsuit

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SPRINGFIELD-State-subsidized health care is not constitutionally guaranteed for retired public workers, a downstate judge ruled Tuesday in a decision that drew praise from top Illinois Democrats aiming to reel in government pension benefits.

"Health insurance benefits are not guaranteed pension benefits protected by the Pension Protection Clause" of the Illinois Constitution, wrote Sangamon County Judge Steven Nardulli.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit brought last year by former state appellate justice Gordan Maag and a group of other retirees, who challenged a 2012 state law that permits Gov. Pat Quinn's administration to set health-insurance premiums for public-sector retirees.

The new law, which took effect last July, means retired state workers, judges, university employees and lawmakers will have to pay premiums for state health insurance after not having to do so if they had met certain seniority requirements.

Nardulli's ruling sided with a request by Attorney General Lisa Madigan to dismiss the lawsuit.

"I am pleased with the court's action today to uphold this important law," Quinn said in a statement. "This is good news for the taxpayers and another step forward in our effort to restore fiscal stability to Illinois."

The decision also represented good news for Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), who has made state-subsidized health-care insurance a linchpin in pension-reform legislation he's pushing this spring.

Specifically, in legislation he's sponsoring, Cullerton wants retirees to choose either between getting continued health-care coverage from the state or a compounding, 3-percent annual increase in pension benefits, but not both.

Cullerton believes that choice will make pension reductions palatable to the Illinois Supreme Court, assuming lawmakers pass a pension deal this spring and public-sector unions challenge before the state high court.

"The real impact of this ruling is that it reinforces my position that a guarantee of health care access can be negotiated as part of a contractual change to protected pension benefits," Cullerton said in a statement.

A call to John Myers, a Springfield attorney representing one of the retirees who sued, was not immediately returned Tuesday afternoon.

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