Retired Doctor Worked Less Than 5 Years Receives $150k Pension

FOX 32 News Chicago  By Dane Placko, Investigative Reporter

A retired doctor who worked for the state for less than five years is now collecting a pension of more than $150,000 per year.

Critics said it’s a perfect example of why Illinois’ pension system is broke. However, the doctor is firing back saying don’t blame the retirees getting the money.

“I feel blessed. I don’t feel as though I’ve milked the system or anything like that,” said Dr. Renee Hartz.

Hartz has drawn lots of attention over the years for her trailblazing career as a cardiac surgeon. Now, she’s drawn the attention of pension expert Bill Zettler, who literally wrote the book on Illinois’ broken pension system.

“Five years and a pension of 150-thousand dollars. It’s outrageous,” Zettler said.

While doing research, Zettler found that Hartz was employed by the University of Illinois at Chicago between 1991 and 1996, making about a half million dollars a year.

At that time, the state university retirement system — or SURS — had something called the “money purchase formula,” which required the state to continue contributing to participant’s pensions whether or not they were still working.

“Even if you leave the state it keeps clicking up at eight and a half percent a year. She quit in 1996, but every year, kachunk kachunk kachunk. Until she says I want to retire,” Zettler said.

By the time Hartz began collecting her pension in 2011, 15 years after her brief employment by the state, it had grown to well over six figures.

“If she lives her normal expected lifetime per IRS, she will collect almost four million dollars in pensions,” Zettler said. “I’d like to have that deal.”

Fox 32: did you ever know at that time what your pension was going to be?

Dr. Hartz: “I had no idea.”

Fox 32: were you surprised when you saw it?

Dr. Hartz: “yes.”

Hartz grew up dirt poor in the upper peninsula of Michigan, waitressing tables to get through med school. She was among the first female cardiac surgeons in the country when she worked at Northwestern, and then became the first woman to head the cardiac unit at a major teaching hospital when she took over at UIC in 1991. There, she worked at least 80 hours a week performing surgery, writing and teaching.

“Other surgeons who applied for that same position asked for several hundred thousand dollars more,” Hartz said.

While she understands the frustration about Illinois’ pension system, she said she didn’t create the mess and her hefty pension now allows her to continue practicing new medical treatments in retirement.

“It’s sort of saving my life. It’s keeping me happy and I can continue to work when I want to and I still will. And it doesn’t matter what I make,” Hartz said.

“It’s legal. That’s what she’ll say. And they’re right. It was legal. It’s what I call legal corruption,” said Zettler.

Zettler said that “money purchase formula” was dropped by the state in 2005 after it became clear it was unsustainable. But those who had it were allowed to keep it, which means there are thousands of former and current state employees still getting the annual eight and a half percent pension boost.