Thousands of Ohio steel workers now find themselves without health insurance. At least three Northeast steel makers have gone broke over the past year. That's left retirees searching for affordable coverage. Some political leaders recently launched a controversial effort to pay for premiums, but that failed. The issue has called into question exactly who is responsible for their medical care. 90.3 WCPN's Mike West examines the problem.
Mike West: In northeast Ohio, LTV and CSC steel are gone. Meanwhile, Republic Technologies International is bankrupt and looking for a buyer. That means the people who retired from those companies and the dozens of other failed steel makers are shopping for health insurance. The lifetime coverage they were promised has disappeared like steam from a factory smokestack. The retired workers say they can't find affordable coverage because of their age and say most have Pre-existing medical conditions.
Senator George Voinovich wanted to help with a government plan that would have provided 70% medical coverage for a year.
George Voinovich: There are a lot of people out there that don't know what to do, and they need time to figure out how they're going to provide for their healthcare so we give 'em some breathing room while they try and figure out how they can get the job done.
MW: The amendment that was tacked onto a trade bill that didn't survive. But even if it had, the partial coverage still left 57,000 Ohio steel retirees to pay 30% of their premiums. And the money would have run out in a year. During a meeting with steel workers last week at his Cleveland office, the senator advised them to use their group buying strength to negotiate their own medical plan.
GV: Hopefully some pools will be developed where you can buy into a pool and not have to buy individually from Blue Cross or Blue Shield or from Medical Mutual because it's very, very expensive.
MW: Mark Shaw is a spokesman for the United Steel Worker's Union. He says it would be a nightmare to attempt to find them coverage. Shaw says retirees would have to agree a single medical plan, the costs and fees and then nobody could drop out. If they did it would blow the contract.
Mark Shaw: Now if we can guarantee an insurance company that all 30,000 to 60,000 retirees would sign up for their plan we could negotiate a pretty good rate for them. The fact of the matter is we can't force any of those retirees to take that plan because they might decide that they can't afford it so they don't take the plan. That's one less and there's no guarantee there that's the difficult part of that.
MW: Shaw creating the pool is the wrong answer. He's also convinced the problem will only get worse as more companies fail or are sold to new owners who don't have to honor old labor contracts. He says something has to be done for steelworkers and people in other trades.
MS: The steel workers believe that it illustrates for some kind of universal health care for people in this country.
It isn't unique to the steel workers. The reason the steelworkers are out there is because we are united, we have a voice, and we're going to Washington to talk about it. Anyone else out there that needs healthcare, and I suspect it's a lot of them, they ought to join our fight and they ought to head to Washington and demand... demand that they get healthcare and prescription costs that are reasonable.
MW: That kind of talk scares opponents of universal health care which has also been called "socialized medicine" and a "single payer system." Scott Pullins is the chair of the Ohio Taxpayer's Association.
Scott Pullins: I think the intentions of the politicians are good, but the fact is we don't feel that it's government's responsibility to solve this problem.
MW: The government already pays for the medical coverage for low income citizens and offers low cost care for the elderly through medicare. Pullins says those programs have damaged the system and are pushing up the cost of health care for others.
SP: It contributes to the problem of health care becoming more expensive. When government purchases health care from private companies they force the private companies to provide those services below the company's cost. As a result when the companies provide health care for the rest of us they have to make up those costs. So the more government purchases and provides health care the more expensive it becomes for those of us that aren't on a government plan.
MW: Bruce Bostic will soon retire from bankrupt Republic Steel in Lorain. His golden years will be greeted with finding coverage. He says the government should pay for his coverage because it pays for others including public servants like Senator Voinovich.
Bruce Bostic: Every corporation that wanted bailouts lines up and gets from the public till but when steel workers lose their health care after we've paid for it through negotiations were fed some line of crap and that's all I took for it, it was done-gone insult and we deserve better. Furthermore he's standing there with full-paid health care. We deserve healthcare.
MW: Mr. Voinovich says the answer to the crisis is in lowering the cost of care. He says one of the ways to do that is by limiting the amount of money victims can recover from doctors and their insurance companies when they sue. Scott Pullins of the Ohio Taxpayers Association says the answer to halt all government medical spending and let things take care of themselves.
SP: There seems to be a trend of bailing out the steel industry and we think it's a mistake there are lots of other companies specifically in the technology sector right now that are having a hard time and it doesn't make sense to bail out one company and not bail out others, the best policy is not to bail out any company.
MW: Supporters of the amendment to provide medical relief for steel retirees say they are already looking for an opportunity to bring their proposal back for another vote by attaching it to another piece of legislation. In Cleveland, Mike West, 90.3 WCPN News.