CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT, CLINT SCHEMMER
Speaking Wednesday in the well of the House chamber, U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger honored retired Virginia police officer Wally Bunker of Culpeper County.
Bunker, 74, is the namesake of the 7th District congresswoman’s bipartisan legislation to ensure all retired officers can access a federal tax benefit to pay for the health coverage they have earned.
Spanberger urged her colleagues to support the bill she introduced earlier this year, titled the Wally Bunker Healthcare Enhancement for Local Public Safety (HELPS) Retirees Improvement Act.
“For nearly 22 years, Wally served as a police lieutenant for the Suffolk Police Department, where he served in several different roles,” she said. “Now retired from the force and living in Culpeper, he cannot access a key tax benefit to help pay for his health coverage—an issue that is shared by thousands of retired officers across the country.”
Many officers retire early given their jobs’ high-pressure physical and psychological demands. That means many lose their employer-sponsored coverage while still years away from Medicare eligibility, said Spanberger, a former Central Intelligence Agency case officer and U.S. postal inspector.
As a police officer, 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 a statement Wednesday.
In 2006, to help address the general issue, 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, the two-term Virginia legislator said.
The 2006 law requires pension plans to pay the $3,000 directly to the insurer, her office said. Many smaller pension plans use a third-party system to disburse payments, preventing many retirees from accessing the benefit.
Spanberberger’s reform, cosponsored with Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, would ensure all retired, eligible police officers, firefighters and other public-safety officers across the country can reap the benefit, she said.
The Wally Bunker Act is endorsed by the National Fraternal Order of Police and National Association of Police Organizations.
National Fraternal Office of Police President Patrick Yoes has said the legal glitch means that the public pension system must pay officers’ insurers in order to exclude benefit payments from their gross income.
The legislation would remove the requirement that pension-fund distributions must go directly to the insurer for retirees to be eligible for tax-free status, Spanberger’s office said.