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Company Paid Health Benefits Cease for Retirees

By Eileen Buckley

Buffalo, NY – Local Bethlehem Steel retirees must now pay for their own health care insurance. International Steel Group of Cleveland is buying the bankrupt company and ended health insurance coverage for all retirees.

Twelve thousand local retirees of the former Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna are forced to make new health care choices. They have the option to stay with their current plan, but must pay for it out of their own pockets. Some retirees can apply for COBRA, a federal program that extends current health coverage for up to six months, but not those 65 years and older on Medicare.

Local HMOs created other programs to keep the retirees benefits in place. Kristine Greene, director of sales and marketing for Univera's Senior Choice, says it is offering help for more than 4,000 local Bethlehem retirees. Greene says no retiree will be left without insurance, but are being placed under direct pay plans.

"For our Medicare retirees, they're not going into a COBRA. They're going into a Senior Choice program that most closely matches the program they had with Bethlehem," Greene said.

Greene says many of the retirees are worried about affordability and paying for the high cost of prescription drugs.

Lou Thomas, president of the United Steel Workers of America, District 4, says the union has worked to help retirees, but now the government must make changes to improve retiree healthcare costs.

Thomas says the union has been warning for some time that foreign steel imports would cripple America's steel industry.

"We've been screaming about this for years," Thomas said. "We are the only ones out there trying to do something for the retirees.

"We have a major coporation that doesn't exist anymore because of unfair foreign trade."

During the heyday of Buffalo's steel manufacturing, there were more than 22,000 local steel jobs. Now there are just 350 workers left at Bethlehem's Galvanized steel in Hamburg.

Thomas says he's certain ISG will keep the jobs as it buys the division. But he says the union fought desperately to retain those steel workers.