Chesterton Tribune

Many Bethlehem Steel retirees having trouble finding health insurance

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By The Associated Press

Within two years of losing their health care benefits, nearly 75 percent of retirees from bankrupt Bethlehem Steel and LTV Corp. obtained some alternative coverage, a survey has found.

But many — especially those under 65 who are too young for Medicare — were forced to make major life changes. About 53 percent said they cashed in savings or assets to pay health care costs, while 49 percent said they or their spouse went back to work or put off retirement.

The findings, released Tuesday by the Menlo Park, Calif.-based Kaiser Family Foundation, come from a 2004 survey of nearly 2,700 retired steelworkers and their spouses who lost health benefits in 2002 and 2003.

Even though many people ended up with other insurance coverage, they experienced difficulties throughout the process, said Isadora Gil, a policy analyst with Kaiser, a nonprofit foundation that focuses on national health care issues.

“It wasn’t a smooth transition,” Gil said. “Quite a few people struggled. A lot of them felt they were put in a really bad position.”

Almost half the respondents under 65 said they have put off a doctor’s visit because of concerns about cost.

Jerry Green, president of Local 2599 of the United Steelworkers of America in Bethlehem, said he goes to the doctor less frequently.

“If I can kick (a cold) at home, I try to do that,” said Green, 51. “The majority of the guys I talk to ... tell me the same: ’I should really go for that yearly checkup, but I’m going to go in 14 months or 18 months.”’

The bankruptcies of both companies left about 167,000 retirees and spouses without retiree health coverage in 2002 and 2003.

Ike Gittlen, former president of United Steelworkers Local 1688 in Steelton, recalled attending many meetings for retirees facing health care choices. People who never had to worry about medical coverage were suddenly dealing with 10 options, he said.

“They just didn’t understand it,” said Gittlen, who still works for the union.

The survey also found that 26 percent of the under-65 respondents used the federal Health Coverage Tax Credit. Nationally 7 percent of eligible people use the credit, which provides up to a 65 percent reimbursement for health care premiums and was enacted in late 2002 to help workers and retirees in industries displaced by international competition.

The Kaiser survey included early retirees under 65 in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Ohio and Maryland, and Medicare-age retirees 65 and older in the states of Indiana and Ohio.

The sampling error margin for respondents under 65 was plus or minus 2 percentage points, and plus or minus 4 percentage points for respondents over 65.




Posted 5/31/2006