Judges to lose health benefits

Delegate submitting legislation to cover Orphans' Court


When Howard County Orphans' Court Judge Sherae M. McNeal's husband lost his job more than a year ago, the couple and their two children found themselves without health insurance until McNeal realized she could be insured through her job by the county.

But about 30 days later, she received a letter from the county informing her that at the end of 2006, it would no longer cover health benefits for Orphans' Court judges. And so at the end of her term next December, McNeal and her family will once again be without health insurance.

"It hadn't occurred to me that I would ever be in this position," McNeal said. "Millions of people don't [have health insurance], but I didn't think I'd be one of them."

But Del. Frank S. Turner is trying to change that. A former Orphans' Court judge, Turner is submitting legislation to the General Assembly that would give the county the authority to cover the benefits for the judges.

Herman Charity, special assistant to Howard County Executive James N. Robey, said the county had been paying the judges' benefits for about 20 years until an audit revealed that the county did not have the authority to do so because the judges are considered state employees.

Although technically state bodies, orphans' courts are financed and controlled by local governments, except in Montgomery and Harford counties, which use Circuit Court judges to perform the same functions.

Anne Arundel County Orphans' Court Judge Gail J. Schaffer, chairwoman of the state conference of orphans' court judges, said: "It's always been a very confusing situation." She is paid by the county, for example, while the Anne Arundel register of wills is paid by the state.

"We are trying to get some unity with all of these courts" through the conference, she said.

The judges, who preside over the court that has authority over probate and administers deceased persons' estates, work about eight to 10 hours a week, which doesn't allow them a regular full-time job, McNeal said. Two of Howard County's three judges take advantage of the county's health benefits.

"You can't have a Monday-through-Friday, 9-to-5 job ... and most of your Monday-through-Friday, 9-to-5 jobs are the ones that pay health insurance," said McNeal, who is paid $8,000 as a judge and also works as an attorney.

Turner said the county provides health insurance for other part-time positions, such as the school board and the County Council, and Orphans' Court judges should be afforded the same benefit.

"They are providing a tremendous benefit," said Turner, a Democrat. "I think the least we can do ... is to continue to let them have health insurance. I think that would be the right and fair thing to do."

Charles M. Coles Jr., the chief judge of the county Orphans' Court, has been with the court for the past 16 years and for the past 10 years he has depended on health insurance, which is not available through his other jobs as a farmer and a school bus contractor for Howard County public schools.

"To purchase the benefits would take up a solid chunk of my income," said Coles, who makes $9,500 annually as chief judge. "I'd have to leave this office to get a job that would have benefits."

Both Coles and McNeal plan to run for office again next year and are unsure what they will do for health insurance if the county does not provide it.

If it comes to it, McNeal is hoping that her husband, who recently passed the state bar examination, could get a job that provides the family insurance.

"I'm certainly hoping that this bill gets passed," she said.


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