Loss of Dental Subsidies Launches Aetna Retirees into Action 

Created in the 1850s, Aetna has long been one of the leading insurance companies in America for the American people. In 1854, the Hartford-based company hired its first employee and by the end of the Civil War, was one of the nation’s leading life insurers. 

By 1904, Aetna was the largest life insurance carrier in the world. 

Throughout its storied history, the company has served as bonding agent for the building of the United Nations and the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and amazingly seven U.S. Navy Aircraft carriers during WW II. Aetna even provided insurance coverage for the Manhattan Project, which produced the world’s first atomic bomb. The company also paid the nation’s first Medicare claim. 

Celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2003, Aetna’s many other distinctions also make the company stand out and are a source of pride for its 26,000 employees and tens of thousands of retirees.

Hartford, CT is home to Aetna Insurance and the State Capital. When retirees realized benefits were being threatened they took their case to the State Legislature which held hearings and created pro-retiree legislation legislation.

*Used by permission of the State of Connecticut*

Its retirees were well aware that since its inception in 1853, Aetna had never reduced their benefits. However, on February 6, 2004, that changed when they received a notice that the company was preparing to eliminate their dental benefit subsidy. 

These retirees found that they would now have to pay $400 to $800 annually to continue dental coverage as a result of the change. Stunned by this move, a group of retirees took action and formed Aetna Retiree Association (ARA), which a little more than one year later had over 1,000 members. 

The group’s goal is to protect the healthcare benefits and pensions of Aetna retirees, many of whom are still perplexed as to why the company—which they note is very profitable—would reduce benefits. In fiscal year 2004, Aetna’s operating profit exceeded approximately $1.9 billion, up almost 30 percent on revenues of nearly $20 billion. 

According to Bob Gilligan, the retiree association’s president and former VP of Aetna’s Employee Benefits Division, the average Aetna retiree receives about $6,000 a year in pension, and was promised that they were not going to have to pay anything towards their health benefits for life if they retired before 1988. 

Considering that Aetna had a rock solid reputation, and that it had long been a leader in providing and administering pension and benefit plans for employees throughout America, retirees wondered how this reduction could occur. 


As early as 1899, Aetna entered the health insurance field, but only as a “sideline” to help attract customers for its main insurance products. In 1913, the company claims to be responsible for widely introducing group coverage for businesses, bringing into public consciousness the notion that employers bore responsibility for the health and safety of their workers, according to Aetna’s own corporate history. 

The company points with pride that, even during the Great Depressions of the late 1920s and 1930s, Aetna survived without layoffs. It still calls Hartford, Connecticut, the very same building where it has been headquartered since the 1930s, home. 

The company’s proud and rich roots in the pension business began in the early 1930s and in 1936 it began offering group health insurance policies for workers. Later in the 1950s, Aetna introduced major medical coverage to help employers attract and retain workers and even went as far as to introduce catastrophic illness coverage. 


ARA chairman John Dwyer says the first of its kind benefit reduction by Aetna is a clear indication that the company has drastically changed since he retired in 1996, after working as a senior officer for 35 years. 

“Although we are determined to prevail, the ARA wants Aetna to stay financially healthy and strong. However, we want the company to face the fact that they did something wrong when they decided to start taking away retirees’ benefits,” said Dwyer. 

After the initial shock about Aetna’s announced elimination of dental subsidy for retirees, Aetna Retirees began contacting members of the Connecticut State Legislature. 

On March 15, 2004, the retirees, led by Dwyer, journeyed to the State Capital in Hartford, just a short distance from the insurance powerhouse’s headquarters, to contest the change and to seek government support for their cause. Their efforts led to legislative hearings and proposed legislation. 

“We had an informal hearing before the state Labor Committee. We had about 115 members, of which 15 to 20 people testified against the company’s recent actions,” he said. 

Following that meeting, a legislative committee drafted Connecticut Senate Bill 1273. The bill prohibits the granting of state economic aid to any corporation that has cut retiree benefits and further forces the company to repay any state grants they received from Connecticut with 5 percent interest. 

The bill was referred to the Joint Finance Committee, and is expected to be included as an amendment to a previously existing bill. 

John Dwyer advises other retirees attempting to form an advocacy group similar to the ARA to talk about the issues with the company first. He recommends that both retirees and current employees save all important documents, records, and handouts given to them by the company, particularly those regarding benefits. 

Although spurred on by the benefit change, the ARA would ultimately like Aetna to view them as an ally helping the company to prosper in the business world, but needs the company to take care of commitments made to the retirees first, said Dwyer. 

“Instead of having over 1,000 adversaries, Aetna could have over 1,000 advocates,” he said. “All they have to do is keep the promises they made.”


Aetna Retirees Association

Headquarters: Hartford, Connecticut 

Mailing Address:

Aetna Retirees Association

PO Box 280165 

East Hartford, CT 06128 

email contact: editor@aetnaretirees.com

web site: www.AetnaRetirees.com