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State and Local Government Retiree Health Benefits: Liabilities Are Largely Unfunded, but Some Governments Are Taking Action

GAO-10-61 Published: Nov 30, 2009. Publicly Released: Dec 23, 2009.
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Accounting standards require governments to account for the costs of other postemployment benefits (OPEB)--the largest of which is typically retiree health benefits--when an employee earns the benefit. As such, governments are reporting their OPEB liabilities--the amount of the obligation to employees who have earned OPEB. As state and local governments have historically not funded retiree health benefits when the benefits are earned, much of their OPEB liability may be unfunded. Amid fiscal pressures facing governments, this has raised concerns about the actions the governments can take to address their OPEB liabilities. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to provide information on governments' retiree health liabilities. GAO described (1) what has been reported in state and local governments' comprehensive annual financial reports (CAFR) regarding OPEB liabilities, (2) actions state and local governments have taken to address retiree health liabilities, and (3) the overall fiscal pressures these governments face. GAO reviewed the CAFRs for 50 states and the 39 local governments with at least $2 billion in total revenue. GAO also reviewed the actions taken to address retiree health liabilities by 10 state and local governments, selected based on geography and variation in approaches to address their liability. Finally, GAO simulated the fiscal outlook for the state and local sector and projected health care costs for state and local retirees.

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