Culpeper Star-Exponent: Bill named for Culpeper police veteran who’s fought 15 years for tax benefit

CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT, DAVY MEISTER

Never climb into a boxing ring with Wally Bunker.

This tough, smart ex-cop will float like a butterfly and sting you like a swarm of bees for as long as it takes, even if that fight should go 15 years.

What’s worth fighting for all that time? Leveling the playing field.

Bunker, a 22-year police veteran who lives in Culpeper, has been leading a crusade since 2006 to change a federal law that has hurt retirees from his previous line of work.

Affecting tens of thousands of public-safety personnel across the nation, the law crimps officers’ ability to use a tax deduction and other health coverage created for their benefit, U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., said in a statement. To fix the problem, the 7th Congressional District lawmaker is co-sponsoring House Bill 7203 with Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio.

The proposed reform is named the Wally Bunker Healthcare Enhancement for Local Public Safety (HELPS) Retirees Improvement Act.

“To keep our communities safe, America’s law-enforcement officers go above and beyond under immense pressure,” said Spanberger, whose career includes stints as a Central Intelligence Agency case officer and a U.S. postal inspector.

“Operating within these intense, day-to-day circumstances means officers must often retire early from the force due to the physical and psychological demands of the job. Unfortunately, this early exit means they can neither access employer-sponsored healthcare coverage nor can they enroll in Medicare,” Spanberger said. “We can take concrete, commonsense steps to resolve this issue. This includes making sure retired officers are able to use tax-free payments from their pension plans to cover health insurance costs, no matter how their pension payment is disbursed.

“I am proud to help lead the introduction of this bipartisan legislation to do just that,” she said, noting that the bill is named after her constituent, Wally Bunker.

Bunker told the Culpeper Star-Exponent he appreciates the teamwork of Spanberger and Chabot.

“I am pleased to finally see legislation introduced that levels the playing field for all public-safety retirees to take advantage of this tax deduction,” he said.

Spanberger thanked Chabot for his partnership and his leadership on the issue.

“I will keep working to make sure Virginia’s law enforcement receive the benefits they’ve earned for putting on the badge,” she said.

Chabot said he understands what Bunker’s service means, as well that of other law-enforcement personnel.

“Our public-safety officers risk their lives every time they put on their uniform,” the congressman said in a statement. “Often, they retire early due to the physical demands of the job, which leads them to a lengthy gap of time prior to their Medicare eligibility. Our public safety officers have already done so much for their community, and they deserve a hassle-free retirement. That is why I have introduced the HELPS Retirees Improvement Act to ensure that all public-safety retirees receive the tax benefit they deserve.”

Bunker, having tried over the years to work on the issue with Spanberger’s Republican predecessors, Eric Cantor and David Brat, said he is relieved to finally be making progress.

“It was heartening to see Rep. Abigail Spanberger and Rep. Steve Chabot, in a bipartisan effort, realize how unfair the current application of the law discriminated against public safety retirees who would otherwise qualify in every way for the tax deduction except for the direct payment requirement from the pension fund to the healthcare provider,” Bunker said.

The bill has the backing of the national Fraternal Order of Police, giving Bunker plenty of company in the ring.

FOP President Patrick Yoes explained: “In 2006, Congress enacted the HELPS Retirees Act, which provided a modest tax benefit to help retired public safety officers afford health insurance by allowing the use, on a pre-tax basis, of up to $3,000 annually from their pension funds (including defined benefit plans and defined contribution plans) to pay for premiums on health care and long-term care insurance.

“Because of the physical demands of their profession, law enforcement and other public safety officers often retire earlier than other occupations,” Yoes said in a statement. “In fact, many local, state and federal agencies have mandatory retirement ages for their officers. In these instances, retired officers may lose their employer-provided health insurance upon or shortly after their retirement—a time when they are years away from being eligible for Medicare.

“This, coupled with the fact that law enforcement and other public safety officers face greater health-care needs than other professions because of the hazards they faced in the line of duty, forces them to spend a considerable amount of their limited income on health insurance premiums. Many retired public safety officers were able to take advantage of this benefit,” Yoes said.

Good for some, but not for Wally Bunker, and thousands of others.

Yoes said too many public-safety officers were ineligible or lost their eligibility for this benefit because of the law’s “direct pay” requirement. This means that the public pension system must pay the health or long-term care insurance company in order to exclude these payments from the employee’s gross income.

That’s why Bunker climbed into the ring, to battle that wrong and help public-safety workers obtain the previously unattainable.

If the Wally Bunker Act becomes law, it will remove the “direct pay” requirement and let all retired public employees take advantage of this benefit, which they earned through their service to our communities. It will also increase the pre-tax amount from $3,000 to $6,000 per year.

For now, Bunker waits for the bell to sound, signalling the next round as the bill travels down the legislative path.

“I can only hope that common sense and fairness prevails,” he said. “I also hope the Senate introduces similar legislation and co-sponsors sign on in both houses to pass the legislation.”

Did Bunker ever think of giving up?

“No, I did not,” he said. “I was always hopeful that an elected official would champion the cause. In Rep. Spanberger and Rep. Chabot, those officials were found.”

“I am not a quitter,” Bunker said.

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