Retired Suffolk officer fights for federal legislation to help other retirees

Published 5:37 pm Tuesday, April 5, 2022

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A retired Suffolk police officer is fighting for a bipartisan bill that would help protect tax credits for public safety retirees.

Wally Bunker, a Culpepper resident, said he retired after 22 years with the Suffolk Police Department. Like many public safety workers, due to the physical demands of the job, he retired early, which can cause retirees to lose access to employer-sponsored health coverage while they are not yet able to qualify for Medicare.

In 2006, Congress passed the Healthcare Enhancement for Local Public Safety (HELPS) Retirees Act. This allows the retirees to withdraw $3,000 tax-free from their pension plan annually to pay for health care. However, that is not how the bill ended up working out, Bunker said.

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According to Bunker, he and many other public safety workers cannot utilize the law since it also requires the $3,000 to go directly to the insurer. Bunker and many other public safety retirees are part of the Virginia Retirement System (VRS), which does not permit use of the federal benefit.

“This extra step didn’t allow deductions for tens of thousands of people like me,” he said. “I know there are many retirees from Suffolk’s fire and police departments that can’t take advantage.”

According to Bunker, retirees in many other localities, including Virginia Beach, Portsmouth and Norfolk, are also facing these issues. He understands why VRS doesn’t allow the withdrawals, as it would create an “accounting nightmare.” However, Bunker doesn’t understand why the payment has to go through this extra step in the first place as it wasn’t originally part of the bill.

Bunker has spent the past 15 years contacting members of Congress to try to get the problem fixed. As a retiree of the Suffolk Police Department, he is unable to use this benefit, but Virginia state troopers are eligible as they are part of the State Police Officers’ Retirement System.

“This is not a political issue; it’s a common-sense issue,” said Bunker. “Treat everyone alike with it or do away with it. It’s that simple.”

He got in contact with U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., who decided to carry the torch for reform. She got Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, to take up the case as well. They created the Wally Bunker Healthcare Enhancement for Local Public Safety (HELPS) Retirees Improvement Act, which would remove the requirement that pension fund distributions go through the insurer to be eligible for the tax-free status. It would also raise the annual permissible withdrawal from $3,000 to $6,000, which would make up for the rise in prices since 2006.

According to Bunker, he has no idea why the bill is named after him. He assumes it’s because of his work to bring awareness to this issue and contacting his representatives for over a decade. However, he doesn’t want the recognition, only for the bill to be fixed.

He has recently reached out to U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both D-Va., but has heard nothing back so far. Bunker encourages other retirees to call their representatives and help this bill go through to give equal opportunities to all public service retirees no matter what department they retire from.

“They just need to fix it,” said Bunker, “It’s an unfair practice.”