New Jersey officer's widow worries loophole will cost her cancer care

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Danielle Leigh reports on the health benefits battle for one New Jersey widow battling stage four breast cancer.

A New Jersey town is promising to close a health benefit loophole that nearly cost a New Jersey widow her health insurance while she battled stage four breast cancer.

Tammy Lieberman lost her husband, Westfield Police Department Detective Eric Lieberman, unexpectedly this May when the 47-year-old had a heart attack while getting ready for his job.

"He lived and died for that place," Tammy said.

Westfield showed its gratitude to the detective, even attending the 8th-grade graduation of the couple's youngest son.

Tammy received a life insurance payout and a portion of her husband's pension, but the trouble came when she tried to access what she believed to be health benefits her husband had earned.

"He died thinking he was being a great provider," Tammy said. "It's almost like he worked all this time, put money into an account, and then it just didn't exist for his family."

According to the police contract with Westfield Township, officers can retire after 25 years of eligible service and continue under the town's health benefits program. If the officer dies, the officer's spouse and children can continue with the program until the spouse reaches age 65 and the kids grow up.

Under the contract, the same benefit does not apply to officers like Detective Lieberman, those who are eligible to retire but stay on the job.

Detective Lieberman had 27 years of service, and in cases like his, the surviving family is provided continuing coverage for just 36 months, as required by a federal law known as COBRA.

After that time, Tammy would need to find new health insurance for her family on the open market.

"At which point that ends, I'm going to be in big trouble because no one is going to pick me up," Tammy said referencing her pre-existing condition.

Recently, doctors worried Tammy's breast cancer had spread and ordered additional tests and ongoing treatment.

She's worried about what will happen to her two children, ages 14 and 19, who just lost their father and could lose their mother as well.

"My kids need me...what are they going to do if something happens to me?" Tammy asked. "They have the ability, the township, to save my life, and the idea that at their discretion, they are choosing not to give a family the benefits that he (Detective Lieberman) clearly earned and then some, it's just heartbreaking and very scary."

Tammy said she first reached out to the town privately, hoping to compel them to keep her and her sons on the town's health benefits program.

In emails, the the police union president wrote Tammy, "I have gone over our contract several times, and there is just no language that governs deceased active members and their families...Our hands are severely tied, there's just nothing to fight or grieve...There just isn't anything there for us to fight that's winnable."

The Town Administrator James Gildea also responded with uncertain news.

"Your COBRA benefits are scheduled to end as of May 31, 2021. We have some time until 2021 and I may be able to entertain a request for special consideration but it is premature at this time," Gildea wrote Tammy in an email.

Concerned community members began a petition to compel the town to extend Tammy's benefits. Meanwhile, she contacted 7 On Your Side Investigates for help.

Eyewitness News reached out to Westfield Mayor Shelley Brindle about closing the health benefit loophole and helping Tammy.

"The silver lining in all of this was uncovering something no one had considered before," she said. "We have the opportunity to address the omission going forward."

Brindle promised to address the issue in upcoming contract negotiations after the end of 2018, when the police contract expires. She also committed to closing the same loophole that also exists in the town's firefighter contract.

Brindle said whatever benefits were negotiated in 2019 would be applied retroactively to Tammy and her family.

"We are absolutely committed to the same goal, and that is taking care of Tammy and her family," Brindle said.

Brindle added that it had always been her intent to help Tammy and her family.

In a statement released by the township planned to coincide with the airing of the Eyewitness News story. Brindle said, "Our focus since Detective Lieberman's untimely death has been on finding a resolution to this terrible and rare situation, well before any media attention was involved."

Tammy said she was relieved to learn she would not have to worry about her health care and could focus on fighting cancer, raising her sons and grieving her husband's death.

"Eric is and was a great provider, Tammy said. "I know that you doing this for us, he's smiling, I know he is. I'm also grateful that my concerns were heard by the Mayor and my hope is that my experience will protect other families who may end up in my situation in the future."

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