The Bill Would Allow More Retired First Responders to Access a Tax Benefit to Help Cover the Cost of Their Health Coverage
HENRICO, V.A. — U.S. Senators Mark Warner (D-VA), John Thune (R-SD), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) yesterday introduced the Police and Fire Health Care Protection Act, which is the U.S. Senate version of U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger’s Wally Bunker HELPS Retirees Improvement Act. This now-bicameral effort builds upon Spanberger’s push to make sure that all retired police officers and firefighters can access a key tax benefit to pay for the health coverage they have earned.
Many police officers and firefighters retire early because of the intense demands and unique hazards they face on the job. Unfortunately, with this early exit from the field, many lose access to their employer-sponsored health coverage but are still years away from being eligible for Medicare. To alleviate the burden of paying out-of-pocket for health insurance, Congress enacted the Healthcare Enhancement for Local Public Safety (HELPS) Retirees Act to allow retired officers to withdraw $3,000 tax-free from their pension plan annually to pay health or long-term care insurance premiums. However, the 2006 law required that pension plans pay the $3,000 directly to the insurer — but many smaller pension plans use a third-party system for disbursing payments, therefore preventing many retirees from accessing the benefit.
Spanberger introduced the bipartisan Wally Bunker HELPS Retirees Improvement Act earlier this year to remove the requirement that pension fund distributions must go directly to the insurer to be eligible for tax-free status. The legislation is named after Wally Bunker, a 74-year-old retired police officer now living in Culpeper, Virginia. Mr. Bunker was a Police Lieutenant for the Suffolk Police Department in Suffolk, Virginia for nearly 22 years, where he served in patrol, investigations, internal affairs, communications, and undercover cases. In his retirement, he has been blocked from accessing this tax benefit to help pay for his health and long-term insurance.
“Every retired Virginia officer — and every retired officer across the country — who protected and served their community and is eligible for this tax benefit should be able to receive it, regardless of how their pension is dispersed,” said Spanberger. “America’s police officers and fire fighters put their own health and safety on the line to keep our communities and our neighbors safe. But for too long, many retired first responders like Wally Bunker have been unable to access an existing benefit to help pay for the health coverage they have earned. I am grateful that my Senate colleagues have recognized the error in the direct payment requirement currently enforced under the law, and I am proud to have Senators Warner, Thune, Brown, and Grassley join our push to fix this issue.”
“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,” said Warner. “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.”
Both bills have been endorsed by the National Fraternal Order of Police, National Association of Police Organizations, and International Association of Fire Fighters.