WESTFIELD, NJ — Tammy Lieberman has been treated for breast cancer since 2008. And if her husband, Eric Lieberman — a detective who was a member of the Westfield Police Department for 27 years — had retired before he died from heart failure at age 47 in May, she said the town would be paying for her health insurance.
Since he hadn’t yet retired, Lieberman said the town claims it’s not responsible for her insurance and that she’s facing a $25,000 payment in January to extend coverage for herself and their two sons to 2021.
However, according to a statement posted to Mayor Shelley Brindle’s public Facebook page on Dec. 3, the town has let Lieberman know that no contribution would be required until April.
“Any report that the town is expecting a $25,000 health insurance premium payment in January is simply untrue,” the statement reads.
Lieberman said that when she has been in contact with town officials during the past few months, they have only discussed the January payment.
The contract with PBA Local No. 90 states that retired employees with at least 15 years of service with the town and at least 25 years of service in the Police and Fireman’s Retirement system, will receive health coverage for themselves and their dependents at retirement.
“It’s about the fact that he earned these benefits and I’m going to fight like hell to make sure that this man is honored for all of the work that he did,” Lieberman said in a phone interview on Nov. 28.
Eric Lieberman worked for the WPD for 27 years, so he would have qualified for the benefits before his death, his wife said.
When contacted, the township directed the LocalSource to the statement posted to Mayor Shelley Brindle’s public Facebook page.
In the Dec. 3 post, Brindle stated that Lieberman is currently receiving a life insurance payout at 3.5 times her husband’s annual salary, approximately 80 percent of her husband’s pension for life and three years of health insurance with a COBRA payment, if she elects to accept it, with a market rate premium contribution.
COBRA refers to the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, which requires employers to offer insurance for up to 18 months to workers whose employment is terminated. The terminated worker must pay the full premium the employer was paying to keep the insurance.
If her husband had retired before his death, Lieberman would be receiving a life insurance payout of 1.5 times, instead of 3.5 times, her husband’s salary, 100 percent of her husband’s pension for life and health insurance benefits until the age of 65, with a reduced contribution, the Facebook post said.
“He retired from this world, but didn’t officially sign the paper there so that’s the issue,” Lieberman said.
According to Brindle’s statement, the town handles details of all personnel matters privately, and will continue to do so. She attached a joint statement from town administrator Jim Gildea and PBA President Paul Ferry.
“It is important that this obligation not be misconstrued as a lack of assistance or compassion for Detective Lieberman’s family. We have, in fact, been privately working toward a solution to address their health care coverage concerns, and continue to do so,” the joint statement reads.
“More broadly, there are state and federal laws in place that guide us in these matters, and, the Town has gladly exceeded its legal obligations on several fronts in an effort to assist Detective Lieberman’s family during this trying time.”
It went on to say that the situation has identified unintentional health coverage gaps in their collective bargaining agreement and that they have plans to address the continuation of health coverage when negotiating a new contract at the end of the year.
“I’m just happy because my situation is going to help change the future for other families,” Lieberman said. “Despite the fact that I may die, but other people will have options.”
The Dec. 3 Facebook post also stated that any solution reached concerning contribution rates and length of coverage will be retroactive to Jan. 1, and applied to the Lieberman family. Lieberman said that was not told to her during their original conversations.
Lieberman, 44, has stage 4 breast cancer. She moved to Florida with her 14- and 19-year-old sons to be closer to her family after her husband died May 22.
She has been waging her campaign via conference calls and email conversations to get Westfield to pay her health insurance premium.
“I haven’t really been able to mourn because I’ve been fighting and on the phone with the town,” Lieberman said. “You name it, I’ve been doing it. All day, every day.”
She said she is most outraged because her husband put his life on the line to protect the community.
“How many Christmases and different holidays did he miss because he was out in Westfield protecting that community?” Lieberman asked. “We paid a severe price, and now when we need them the most, it’s just gone?”
She stated that Westfield officials told her it was “up to their discretion and that they don’t want to set a precedent.”
When she was first diagnosed in 2008, Lieberman’s doctor gave her a year to live. She is currently going through daily chemotherapy treatments.
“I should’ve been dead in 2009,” she said. “But I’m here and I’m going to keep fighting until I physically can’t anymore.”
From Westfield and beyond, residents have been rallying around Lieberman, trying to pressure the town to grant health coverage.
A petition was started by Mountainside resident Avneet Hall, a total stranger to Lieberman, after she learned about the situation.
“I saw Tammy’s post on Facebook and was very moved,” Hall said in an email on Nov. 28. “It kept bugging me and then I had the idea to start a petition.”
The petition, which includes the email addresses of Brindle and Westfield Town Council members, has more 1,500 signatures.
“I added all of their work emails so that they would get notifications about each signature and comment,” Hall said. “I think the impact is significant and should help Tammy resolve her issues amicably.”
Lieberman said she can’t believe how helpful and kind complete strangers have been to her.
“It’s been noticed and it’s clear that I’m being wronged and I’m happy that people are willing to help me,” she said. “
Her own Facebook page, Tammy Lieberman’s Community, was created for her by a local resident. Updates regarding her situation are posted on the page regularly.
Lieberman has hopes that the town will reconsider, and if they don’t, she’s optimistic that she will make it work.
“First and foremost, I’m a mother and I’m a wife and I need to fulfill these duties. If I can’t get what my husband earned, it’s going to be very difficult for me to do so, but I will make it work for my family,” she said.