SPRINGFIELD — An attorney for the state asked a judge Wednesday to dismiss a series of lawsuits stemming from last year’s push to end free health insurance premiums for thousands of state retirees.

Assistant Illinois Attorney General Richard Huszagh told Sangamon County Associate Judge Steven Nardulli that the state Constitution was written to protect workers from having their pension benefits decreased.

But, he said, that doesn’t apply to health insurance premiums.

“The plaintiffs have fundamentally misinterpreted the pension protection clause,” Huszagh said.

Four lawsuits have been combined in a case challenging a law that took effect July 1 requiring an estimated 80,000 retired state employees — including university workers, judges and lawmakers — to begin paying premiums on their health insurance.

Gov. Pat Quinn and lawmakers who supported the proposal said it would provide savings at a time when the state is facing a mountain of unpaid bills.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs, however, said retiree health insurance benefits and pension benefits are “joined at the hip.”

“These promises are clearly, clearly protected,” attorney Rodney Taylor said.

“I don’t think there could be any argument that a health benefit is a benefit,” attorney Thomas Maag added.

Nardulli gave the attorneys another three weeks to file additional paperwork. He will make a decision after reviewing that information.

No matter what he decides, Nardulli said the case is likely to be appealed to a higher court by whichever side loses.

That means the retirees will be in limbo for months — if not years — while the lawsuit winds its way through the court system.