Culpeper Star-Exponent: U.S. Senate panel approves bill named for police retiree in Culpeper

CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT, CLINT SCHEMMER

The U.S. Senate Finance Committee has approved its chamber’s companion bill to Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s Wally Bunker Act, named for a retired police officer in Culpeper.

The panel voted Wednesday to advance the legislation, which would ensure all retired police officers and firefighters get a tax benefit to pay for health coverage they’ve earned.

The bill, the full name of which is the Wally Bunker HELPS Retirees Improvement Act, is part of the Senate’s Enhancing American Retirement Now (EARN) Act.

A powerful, bipartisan foursome—Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va.; John Thune, R-South Dakota; Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio—is supporting the Bunker bill. Spanberger, D-7th, introduced the Wally Bunker Act earlier this year to remove a requirement that pension-fund distributions must go directly to insurers for retirees to be eligible for tax-free status.

“To make sure that these local heroes are not left without coverage, we must make sure that retired officers can use tax-free payments from their pension plans to cover health-insurance costs,” the two-term congresswoman said in a statement Wednesday. “Today moves us one step closer to securing this tax benefit for every retired officer—in Virginia and across the country—who earned it. I am grateful to the U.S. senators who recognized the need to remedy this issue and took action by passing this bill out of committee.”

Last month, Spanberger spoke on the U.S. House floor to recognize Bunker and urge her House colleagues to support her legislation in his name.

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, has said Spanberger’s bill would “level the playing field for all retired public-safety personnel.”

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.

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 receiving 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 payment.

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

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