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Rolls Royce health-care lives on at Gannett …

The scribes, delivery drivers, press workers and others in the sprawling news and publishing empire of Gannett (GCI) have had a rough few years of it. In recent weeks alone, there have been as many as 189 unannounced job cuts at last count, on the heels of 255 in November; as many as 20,000 newspaper employees have been told to take weeklong, unpaid furloughs. Amid these pay-cuts-by-another-name, employee health-care costs rose 5%.

The Gannett Blog, our source for those stats and the brainchild of former USA Today journalist Jim Hopkins, does some good work in Gannett’s filings to show just how those furloughs helped fatten the $3.5 million in bonuses that company executives got in 2009. But if that makes Gannett’s top brass seem insensitive to the plight of their underlings, never fear — they’re making sacrifices in the corner suite, too. Sort of.

Specifically, they’re pulling the plug on the Supplemental Executive Medical Plan, the latest version of which is found as an exhibit to the 10-K that Gannett filed yesterday with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The plan is an executive perk that, in today’s environment, seems about as tone-deaf as those private jet-rides the auto executives took to Washington when they were seeking a bailout during the financial crisis.

And, in keeping with that tone, Gannett’s brass isn’t really pulling the plug: They’re just closing the plan to new executives. Those in the club as of December 31, 2010, get to stay in it. As a bonus, the plan is also grandfathered in under last year’s health-reform law, essentially locking in many aspects of the plan’s current benefits as a floor — they can only go up from here (or Gannett has to follow more of the new law’s requirements).

It’s a sweet club, too. Participants get all the usual health-care benefits Gannett offers, naturally, but they also get as much as another $750,000 a year to cover whatever the regular plans don’t. Of course, that sum also has to cover dependents, a group that “will include parents and parents-in-law if they are legal dependents for Internal Revenue Service purposes…” Presumably the plan was a nice comfort for CEO Craig Dubow when he was out in June 2009 for back surgery.

Gannett also offers its chosen few a parallel retiree medical benefit, thanks to the Supplemental Executive Medical Plan for Retired Executives, designed to help the likes of retired Gannett luminary Al Neuharth keep pedaling along without having to worry much about medical bills. It’s not quite as generous: It pays at most $25,000 a year for the executive and any dependents while the exec lives, and $12,500 a year after that. But those surviving dependents get to keep the coverage for life, if we’re reading the plan document properly. Meantime, it turns out that there’s a distinct hierarchy in the Gannett executive retirement home: Some retired execs get only $12,000 a year while alive and $6,000 a year post-mortem.

We suppose closing the club to new members is a baby-step in the right direction. But, frankly, we’re amazed that the benefit has survived this long, given the news industry’s troubles — and Gannett’s abysmal stock performance.