Beth Steel retirees go to Annapolis in support of health insurance bill

They lobby for measure that includes coverage for those age 55 to 64

April 03, 2003|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

A busload of Bethlehem Steel Corp. retirees and their spouses rallied in Annapolis yesterday before packing a Senate Finance Committee hearing to advocate the passage of legislation that would allow retirees ages 55 to 64 to obtain state-backed insurance coverage regardless of their medical histories.

A vote on the legislation could come this week. House Bill 1100, sponsored by Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat, simply added two members to the MHIP board. It was amended by Del. Peter A. Hammen to include the Maryland Health Insurance Plan option for Bethlehem Steel retirees and dependents.

The retirees and their spouses, as well as members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, gathered between the Legislative Services building and the Maryland State Government House at 12:15 p.m. for a brief rally. They didn't carry signs or chant slogans. Instead, they shared a few of their stories and explained why they need insurance.

The coverage would be critical to Bethlehem Steel retirees ages 55 to 64 because they are not eligible for Medicare, which is available to those 65 and older and to the disabled. Hammen said the state has about $51 million available for MHIP.

"I began working in the steel mill in May of 1969 as an electrician and eventually retired in 2002 after 33 years," Clarence Andrew Plitt, 61, told the crowd. "Over the course of my career at Bethlehem Steel, I spent years upgrading my skills, attending electrical apprenticeship programs and attending night school at the Community College of Baltimore and Dundalk Community College.

"I always thought that, by improving my skills and becoming a more productive worker, that my basic needs like health care would be taken care of by Bethlehem Steel. I guess I was wrong."

Plitt, who also spoke at the committee hearing, said that in addition to having to pay for monthly COBRA coverage, he will see his monthly pension of $1,600 cut about 25 percent after pensions are adjusted for Bethlehem Steel's 95,000 retirees nationwide.

Although the rally was low-key, it clearly said that Bethlehem workers want to be allowed to get insurance through MHIP.

Bethlehem Steel's health care and life insurance benefits were terminated Monday for the 95,000 retirees. The company is being sold to Cleveland-based International Steel Group Inc. The decision to sell the company and eliminate benefits has affected about 20,000 retirees and dependents in the Baltimore area. Of them, about 5,000 will be eligible for the Maryland Health Insurance.

Under MHIP's plan, Bethlehem Steel retirees are entitled to a 65 percent federal tax credit, as outlined in the Federal Trade Act of 2002, because their companies have been affected by international trade. The tax credit also applies to individuals whose pension systems have come under federal oversight.

"You know the history and tradition of our steel industry," Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, former Baltimore County executive, said at the rally. "The steel industry helped build our country. So now you need help, and I'm here to help you. Let's stay together as a team. Let's work hard. Let's work smart and do whatever we have to do to protect you."

Ruppersberger and Hammen later spoke for the bill at the committee hearing. Others speaking for the bill included Jim Strong, subdistrict director for United Steelworkers of America, Don Kellner, vice president of the Steelworker Organization of Active Retirees, or SOAR; Michael B. Hickey, legislative director and counsel for the Health Insurance Association of America; Donna Imhoff, deputy insurance commissioner; Richard Popper, MHIP executive director; and affiliates of the Hospital Association and CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.

Kellner, who started working at Bethlehem Steel a day after he graduated from Dundalk High School in 1955, said he takes blood pressure medicine and medication for a heart condition, thin blood and back pain.

"Last month, I was paying around $60 per month for all of the medications, but now the retail price for the same medications will run around $400 to $500 per month," said Kellner, who retired in 1999. "I urge you to support passage of House Bill 1100."

Thomas "Mac" Middleton, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, assured the retirees and spouses that something will be done to assist them.

"The Senate is going to act on this as quickly as possible," Middleton said. "We haven't taken a vote on it yet, but I think you can walk away from here pretty confident that we're going to provide some sort of relief."

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