EEOC sues fund for AIDS patient Baltimore Teamsters case seen as test

November 02, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Staff Writer

Federal authorities have sued a Baltimore Teamsters union welfare fund as a key test in a nationwide drive to protect the health benefits of workers who get AIDS.

"This is a national test case to challenge a union health and welfare fund's decision that unilaterally eliminated AIDS from its coverage," Leslie R. Stellman, one of the lawyers in the case, said yesterday.

At issue is AIDS coverage in the health insurance and sick leave

plans of an estimated 34 million Americans protected by union welfare funds or employers' self-insurance plans. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is trying to assure that AIDS and related conditions remain covered in those plans.

The local case centers about Harry Johnson Jr., a member of Baltimore-based Teamsters Local No. 355, who complained to the EEOC that the union welfare fund was denying him health insurance and sick leave solely because he had AIDS.

Mr. Johnson worked for Monroe Foods, a Baltimore distributor later sold to B. Green & Co., which has since sold off most of its operations. Like many of Local 355's more than 4,000 members, he had health coverage through a welfare fund jointly administered by the union and some of the dozens of employers with which it has contracts.

Today, he's hospitalized and "a very sick man," EEOC lawyers said.

There is no dispute that the welfare fund denied him medical coverage throughout his illness and cut off his sick leave in January.

"We cut him off, that's a fact," said Luther West, the welfare fund's lawyer. But he said federal law allows the fund "to pick and choose what benefits we provide and what illnesses we cover."

The EEOC, meanwhile, claims that the Americans with Disabilities Act and agency guidelines prohibit excluding AIDS and related illnesses when other costly illnesses like cancer or diabetes remain covered.

The Baltimore case is one of several the EEOC is pursuing across the country to test its power to protect AIDS patients. It is one of two cases specifically testing the agency's power to force union welfare funds to give AIDS patients equal treatment with victims of other costly diseases.

"I'm very happy to see this happen," John Stuban, of Baltimore's People With AIDS, said last night after hearing about the EEOC's suit. "It's not only AIDS patients but patients of all major catastrophic illnesses who will benefit if the EEOC is successful."

Mr. Johnson said through EEOC lawyers that he did not feel strong enough for an interview.

Mr. Stellman, who represents Monroe Foods and B. Green in the case, said the company position will be that the food distributors were "innocent bystanders" and were never notified when welfare fund trustees wrote AIDS out of the plan's coverage.

EEOC's Maryland regional office charges that the trustees excluded AIDS by writing into the plan a clause that said: "No benefit described herein shall be payable to or for the benefit of any participant or any eligible dependent of the participant where the expense incurred for medical attention arose as the result of treatment for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome ('AIDS') or AIDS Related Complex ('ARC'), HIV."

Mr. Stellman said, "We think that what happened to this man was pretty nasty, and we think our rights also were violated because an employer has a right to know when a change is made in the plan. But, assuming that the EEOC's guideline are valid, and assuming that they were violated, Monroe Foods and B. Green were not the ones who did it."

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