NY Bill to Use VLT Funds for Rider Insurance

State budget deal would employ 'enhanced purse' account to cover jockey health plan.

A new state budget deal in New York calls using a portion of video lottery proceeds to create a health insurance program for Thoroughbred jockeys.

The program would divert a portion of money now heading to purses to fund the new program.

Buried at the bottom of a long revenue budget bill printed overnight at the state Capitol in Albany is a final provision creating a health insurance program to be administered by the New York Racing Association.

One and one-half percent of a so-called "enhanced purse'' money from VLT proceeds at racinos would be tapped to fund the program. The health insurance program will cost about $1 million a year.

The legislation, set to be approved March 31 by lawmakers before the start of the new state fiscal year the following day, calls for health insurance to be offered to certain jockeys "as a condition of racing'' by the tracks. Money not used by the health insurance program during a year would be returned to the track corporation for the use of purses. The budget language sets up a scenario in which "alternative funding'' can be used besides the purse account, though it does not specify what that could be.

The measure, negotiated in secret over the past week, calls for a track corporation to sign a memorandum of understanding with a jockey's organization that represents at least 51% of eligible active jockeys for how the insurance program will operate. Assembly Racing and Wagering Committee Chairman Gary Pretlow said that would likely end up being the Kentucky-based Jockeys' Guild. The state Gaming Commission would have to approve the arrangement, and would also have the power to settle cases if jockeys are denied coverage and audit the financial books of the program.

The legislation calls for the insurance to be purchased under an exchange operated in New York under the new national health care program. So-called "silver level'' or belowwhich sets the kinds of coverage levelsmust be part of the health plan, though a higher level of coverage could be purchased by jockeys if they pay the difference.

To be eligible for the coverage, jockeys must have been in at least 250 races at the corporation's tracks during the prior year or at least 150 races at other tracks. The legislation states that "if an individual qualified for coverage in any prior year fails to meet the qualification due to an injury not resulting in a permanent injury that individual shall deemed to have met the qualification."

Also eligible are jockeys who retired after January 1, 2010 and ridden in at least 7,500 races during his or her career.

Terry Meyocks, national manager of the Jockeys' Guild, said the program expects to provide health insurance for about 75 jockeys statewide in the beginning, including retired and disabled individuals. The price tag, paid for by the increase in purse levels from VLT operations at Aqueduct and Finger Lakes racetracks, will be about $1 million to cover the jockeys.

The legislation, first proposed last year, came after the state last year dipped into VLT purse proceeds for equine safety programs.

Meyocks, a former president of NYRA, said states beginning with California in the mid-1990s began creating health insurance programs for jockeys. Other states where jockeys can get insured include Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Massachusetts.

Given the dangers of their job, jockeys in New York often have a difficult time getting insurance, Myocks said.

"We appreciate the work of the task force,'' he said of a group of industry stakeholders that has met a half-dozen times on the issue the past year, "as well as the Legislature and governor.''

"This falls in line with other states and it's very important for the riding colony in New York,'' Meyocks added.