New Jersey town closes loophole that could have cost cop's widow health care

WESTFIELD, New Jersey (WABC) -- The town of Westfield, New Jersey, has reached an agreement to close a loophole in the town's benefits package for police and firefighters that could have cost a widow fighting advanced cancer her health care.

7 On Your Side Investigates first covered the controversy last year.

The widow of Det. Eric Lieberman reached out for help fearing she would lose the health insurance she relied on.

Tammy Lieberman's husband had served on the Westfield Police Department for roughly 27 years, earning a retirement package that included the promise of ongoing health care for his family at the time of his death until his wife reached at 65 and his two children grew up.

However, Lieberman didn't retire and since he stayed on the job, when he died suddenly last year, according to the terms of the town's contract with the police union, the town didn't have to continue offering the Liebermans health care.

A loophole meant the Liebermans were only guaranteed 36 months of continuing coverage through COBRA, which potentially carried rates about 80 percent above the Liebermans' current health insurance with the town.

After those 36 months, Ms. Lieberman would have to find her own health insurance, a difficult task for a woman with a potentially fatal pre-existing condition.

Lieberman had been diagnosed with stage four breast cancer and doctors later said cancer had spread to her legs.

"It's been all about fighting for the right to live and fighting for what he earned while he was on this earth," Ms. Lieberman said.

When Eyewitness News approached Westfield Mayor Shelley Brindle about the loophole last year, she indicated a desire to close it and protect the Lieberman family in the process.

"The silver lining in all of this is uncovering something no one had considered before," Brindle said. "We have an opportunity to address this omission going forward. Give us the time to resolve this not only for Tammy and her family but any other families that may be affected."

This week, Brindle delivered on that promise.

The town reached a deal with the police union, PBA Local 90, that would guarantee the spouses and children of active employees with 25 or more years of service continuing health care upon that employee's death.

Under the deal, spouses receive coverage until age 65 and children receive coverage until they become age limited.

The same benefit is offered to employees who choose to retire at 25 years.

Westfield extended this benefit retroactively to Ms. Lieberman.

"I started shaking and started crying," Lieberman said. "I was so excited that I forgot about the tumors in my legs for a minute and started jumping up and down. I'm just ready to mourn my husband and leave all the rest behind me."

Mayor Brindle provided a statement regarding the agreement saying it, "...reiterates what I have said about this issue from the beginning - that the Town was always committed to finding a solution, and this process would take time through the proper channels. I'm pleased we were able to partner with the PBA to provide some comfort to Detective Lieberman's family."

The agreement was reached as part of ongoing contract negotiations with the police union.

Their former work contract expired at the end of 2018.

The larger contract negotiations are still underway.

The same health care provision was also extended to the firefighter's union and Teamsters and proposed to SOA as well, according to a town spokesperson.

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