Harry Gross: Lifetime health benefits? Guess again

DEAR HARRY: About 10 years ago, my employer started a program of lifetime health benefits as an inducement to get some higher-paid employees to retire early. I bit, and I retired at 63. I was to receive a pension of about $1,700 a month with survivorship benefits to my wife of $1,275. The health-insurance benefits were great for us because I developed prostate cancer last year and the costs are wicked. Last week, we were notified that the company was going to phase out the health benefits over the next four years. They gave us a lot of pap about how good it will be for the company and for us because we'd have access to group rates. I can probably handle some of this new burden, but to get saddled with 100 percent of the premium over the next few years will take such a big chop of my retirement income that I'll have to look for another job. Is there not some way we can prevent them from doing this?

WHAT HARRY SAYS: I wish I knew of a way. These programs, even if in writing, even if signed by the entire board of directors, are voluntary. They could even have cut you off in full at one sweep. In the '90s, a court said it was unfortunate that the company had to cut back because of the escalating health costs, but it was within its rights. Sorry.

Write Harry Gross at the Daily News, 801 Market St., Philadelphia 19107.