AS WAR winds down in Iraq and the United States begins stabilizing that country, my family in Baltimore is trying to cope with a stunning domestic defeat.
About 95,000 Bethlehem Steel retirees lost their health care benefits April 1 as part of the bankruptcy settlement of a company once at the backbone of American defense. That adds up to 200,000 and their dependents in the steel industry alone in the past six years -- my parents, ages 82 and 88, now among them.
I recently mailed a check for nearly $1,000 for two months of their COBRA health coverage. It is good coverage, with prescription benefits, far better than any coverage available after COBRA ends in September, if not before.
Their coverage has not yet been activated. After six days of dialing the COBRA number, I finally reached someone who told me that it would take 10 to 14 days to reinstate coverage after a check was received. In the meantime, she said, if either parent needed to go to the hospital or refill their eight prescriptions, I should save the record of payment for later reimbursement.
My parents are fortunate to have enough cash on hand and someone able to figure out the endless paperwork, but living in limbo adds to their anxiety about already-high health care costs, and is another kick in the teeth.
In 1938, after graduation from Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), my father began work at Bethlehem's Quincy, Mass., shipyard. He came to Sparrows Point in 1940. When World War II began, he thought of joining the Navy in the place of his brother, who was married with two children. But because my father was in shipbuilding, essential to the national defense, he was classified 2-B.
With thousands of others, he remained at Bethlehem Steel, working 12-hour days, seven days a week, during the war. In 1946, he met his cousin's college roommate from Texas. They married the next spring and started our family in 1949.
During the Korean War, the Vietnam War and all the years in between, my father worked at Bethlehem Steel.
After 40 years, he retired in 1978. He would have worked longer, but the company was downsizing.
He remembers asking what would happen to his retiree benefits if Bethlehem ever went under. "Don't worry," they said. "We'll take care of you."
Now the company has been dissolved in a New York court building made of Bethlehem steel.
For three months I have scoured the Internet, spoken with friends and other retirees trying to figure the best solution for my parents. I have called every member of Congress, past and present, who I thought might help. I've called lawyers, doctors, pharmacies, even the National Football League, for whom my father worked weekends during the heyday of the Baltimore Colts.
No one has an alternative to my parents spending more than my father's pension for health coverage and prescription drugs. Because he served in an essential service, not the military, during World War II, he isn't eligible for veterans' benefits.
Someone suggested I form a business and hire my parents as employees. Another suggested buying drugs in Canada. A third suggested taking them off their drugs. My mother said, "It would be better if I went on."
She says this not with self-pity but as a practicality. Children of the Depression, she and my father do not whine. My father never gives up hope. He clips every health insurance advertisement and reminds me that Maryland is helping retirees under 65. "Ask them, what about us?"
While they do have Medicare, the last time my mother went to the hospital, a $2,000 balance was left after Medicare. The drug that keeps her out of the intensive care unit will jump from $61 to $327, even with a prescription plan.
The question remains: What is being done to help disenfranchised retirees and 41 million Americans without health insurance or prescription benefits?
That number will increase as industries fold, corporations merge, reconfigure and continue to discard, like chicken bones, the generation that built America and safeguarded it through three wars.
If we have $80 billion and the brainpower and muscle to wage war in Iraq and billions more to rebuild it, why do we lack the resolve to provide health care and prescription benefits to all Americans?
If every member of Congress and every CEO in America were without health benefits for just one year, a solution might surface quickly.
Kathy Hudson is a free-lance writer and editor. She lives in Baltimore.