The Association of U S West Retirees



Plans to cut benefits infuriate retiree battling tumor
By Jeff Smith
Rocky Mountain News
Saturday, December 16, 2006

Juan Garza, a computer programmer, got his walking papers in September 2001 during a company wide layoff under then-CEO Joe Nacchio.  Garza had been with the Denver telco for 28 years, two years shy of a full pension.  He said he felt pressure to take a lump-sum payment or risk losing benefits.  It was a tough time to find a new job.  Garza got a couple of temporary jobs, but one lasted only a week and another four months.  Colleagues at one job were surprised at how he sometimes would get angry at the customers.

In the summer of 2005, Garza headed to Boulder to a computer networking event.  He never made it.  It wasn't the first time he'd become lost or disoriented.

"At 3 a.m., he still wasn't home," his wife, Maria, recalled.  "I kept praying for a policeman to pick him up."

A policeman did, in Golden, after he observed Garza driving erratically.

Garza finally agreed to see a doctor that fall for a physical.  Maria, afraid her husband might have Alzheimer's, told the doctor about her husband's disorientation, irritability and other issues.

The doctor said Garza, then 55, was too young to have Alzheimer's, but he ordered a magnetic resonance imaging exam, or MRI.  The results shocked the Garzas;  he had a lemon-sized tumor in his head that was pushing up against his brain.

Today, Garza is unemployed and losing ground financially.  His wife works at an insurance company, but it's not enough.  He says his retirement portfolio recently has shrunk from $250,000 to $140,000 to pay medical bills, a $1,600-a-month mortgage and other household expenses.  At one time, before Qwest stock losses, he said, the portfolio was above $700,000.

The Garzas have put their house up for sale.  On a recent day, a house painter who is helping Garza spruce up the house stopped by.  Garza said he is too weak to do the work himself.

Garza pays $307 a month for health insurance through Qwest, which he said will increase by about $50 a month next year.  But his out-of-pocket expenses, such as co-pays for medication, are high.  His $69,000 life insurance, which he planned to leave to his wife partly for his burial, or to his son, will now be capped at $10,000.

"I was so infuriated," Garza said of Qwest's plans to cut retiree benefits further.  He said he called Qwest's health care department and "raised hell.  But then I realized I was yelling at someone who had no choice."

Said his wife:  "Juan gave almost 30 years of his life to this company.  He was so dedicated that I used to get mad at him.  I'd tell him, 'You don't have to work so many hours.' "

Like many retirees, Garza said he also recently switched from Comcast Internet service to Qwest.

"I am stupid," he said.

On a recent day, Garza showed a reporter a stack of MRI negatives and letters from doctors.  One doctor said he believed the benign tumor may have been growing for four or five years before the October 2005 diagnosis, meaning it likely was there while he was still working at Qwest.

Thinking back, his wife said he remembers it would take her husband longer to do work even back then.

"I do believe in 2001 he was sick."

But Garza always had too much pride to go to a doctor.

His doctor and wife say Garza is affected by memory loss, becomes easily confused and angry, suffers from extreme fatigue and difficulty sleeping, and often suffers pain from his swollen feet.  He is not supposed to travel far from home on his own because of the possibility of becoming disoriented.

Garza, who also has diabetes, said he takes eight or nine medications in the morning and five or six in the evening.  He considers it a good night when he can sleep three hours.  His wife says he has lost 40 pounds.

At one time, the tumor grew so big it pressed against Garza's optic nerve, affecting his sight.  Doctors were able to reduce the tumor enough to perform surgery in August and remove about 80 percent.  They hope to start radiation therapy on the remaining tumor soon.

One of the doctor's letters indicates Garza is unlikely ever to be able to work again, but Garza is hopeful.

"I want to go back to work, if someone will take me, as screwed up as I am," he said.

"His heart is in it," said his wife, "but he's lost a lot of short-term memory, and right now I don't think he can ever be a programmer again because it takes a lot of concentration and thinking.  He was a very social person.  He's a totally different person now, but I do see a hint of (his past self) every once in a while."

Garza speaks with a soft voice.  But as he told his story while sitting at his dining room table, his voice occasionally would rise in anger.

His voice broke when he described how his 25-year-old son postponed finishing his college degree to help take care of him and support the family.

Still, the family has had to dip into Garza's retirement portfolio to pay expenses.  Garza said he has had to pay IRS penalties for early withdrawal since he's not yet 59 1/2.

"It's just a Catch-22," he said.  "I tell my wife I'm going to be flat broke in the next year.  All the money I saved for retirement isn't going to be there."

Garza has open contempt for Nacchio and other executives who he said lined their pockets during that regime, and his mind is changing about CEO Dick Notebaert as well.

"I thought Richard Notebaert was a good CEO, but then he pulls something like this," Garza said.

"When he came in, he was all for the retirees and employees. I still can't believe it."

Juan Garza

Age:  56

Residence:  Westminster

Career:  Computer programmer, worked at US West/Qwest 1973-2001

Losses:  Will lose $59,000 because of the life-insurance cap, pays $307 a month for health insurance. Estimates he lost almost $500,000 when Qwest stock fell in 2001 and 2002, now is borrowing from his retirement to pay medical expenses.,2777,DRMN_23910_5217949,00.html