Culpeper Star-Exponent: Foursome introduces Senate version of Wally Bunker Act

CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT, CLINT SCHEMMER

A bipartisan, high-powered foursome of U.S. senators has joined the effort to ensure all retired police officers and firefighters get a tax benefit to pay for health coverage they’ve earned.

On Wednesday, they proposed their version of the Wally Bunker HELPS Retirees Improvement Act, which is named for a retired police officer in Culpeper.

Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va.; John Thune, R-South Dakota; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, introduced the Police and Fire Health Care Protection Act, their chamber’s version of U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s proposal.

“Virginia’s first responders put themselves at risk every day to protect our communities—the least we can do is ensure that they are taken care of in retirement,” Warner said in a statement. “I’m proud to introduce the bipartisan Police and Fire Health Care Protection Act of 2022, which will make it easier for tens of thousands of retired officers—like Mr. Wally Bunker, a stalwart advocate and retired police officer from Culpeper—to claim the benefits that they have earned.”

The House and Senate bills are endorsed by the National Fraternal Order of Police, National Association of Police Organizations, and International Association of Fire Fighters.

Because of their jobs’ intense demands and unique hazards, many police officers and firefighters retire early. Years away from being eligible for Medicare, many lose access to employer-sponsored health coverage, according to Spanberger, a former CIA case officer and U.S. postal inspector.

Bunker, 74, is the namesake of the 7th District congresswoman’s bipartisan legislation.

As a lieutenant in the Suffolk Police Department, Bunker served in patrol, investigations, internal affairs, communications and undercover cases. But as a retiree, he is blocked from accessing the federal benefit to help pay for his health and long-term insurance, Spanberger’s office said.

In 2006, Congress enacted the HELPS Retirees Act to enable retired officers to annually withdraw $3,000 tax-free from their pension plan to pay health-care or long-term-care insurance premiums. The law aimed to relieve retired officers from having to pay out of pocket for health insurance.

But many retirees with smaller pension plans are excluded from this benefit, Spanberger said.

The 2006 law requires pension plans to pay the $3,000 directly to the insurer. Many smaller pension plans use a third-party system to disburse payments, preventing many retirees from accessing the benefit.

Cosponsored with Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, Spanberberger’s reform would ensure all retired, eligible police officers, firefighters and other public-safety officers across the country can reap the benefit.

National Fraternal Office of Police President Patrick Yoes says the legal glitch means the public pension system must pay officers’ insurers in order to exclude benefit payments from their gross income.

The House bill would remove the requirement that pension-fund distributions must go directly to the insurer for retirees to be eligible for tax-free status.

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