Congress debates health-care aid for retired steelworkers

by Malia Rulon

<hearing. subcommittee Workforce the and Education House a chaired who R-Texas, Johnson, Sam Rep. said industries,? all on focus should we industries, specific for remedies rifle-shot than ?Rather congressional during Thursday lawmakers aid, government out singled be shouldn’t retirees costs care health looming facing sector business only not is industry steel>p. Steel-state lawmakers have introduced legislation in the House and Senate that would make the government responsible for so-called “legacy” costs, pensions and health care benefits for former employees at bankrupt steel companies.p. The legislators say the aid is the next step in solving a crisis the steel industry blames on a surge of low-priced foreign imports that have flooded the American market since 1998. “We’ve got a lot of people out there without health care. This is a major problem in our mind,” said Dan Martin, political director of the Ohio chapter of the United Steelworkers of America.p. More than 30 steelmakers, including Cleveland-based LTV Corp., have declared bankruptcy in recent years, leaving more than 600,000 retirees, including 56,000 in Ohio, in need of coverage that the legislation would provide. But H. Fred Mittelstaedt, a professor from the Mendoza College of Business at theUniversity of Notre Dame,testified at the hearing that large, capital-intensive companies in all industries are facing soaring health care costs for retirees. “Because of the breadth of coverage, I believe that it would be difficult for the U.S. government to justify giving relief to just one industry,” he said.p. Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who has pushed legislation in the House to provide steel retirees with health care benefits, said he agrees. “They’re right. But steel is first,” said Kucinich, a Democrat. “This is one critical area of public policy that has an obvious solution, and that is universal health care, so that we don’t have to go one industry at a time.”p. Sylvester Schieber, vice president of Watson Wyatt Worldwide human resources consulting firm, testified that companies are moving away from employer-sponsored insurance plans, which may leave the government to pay for coverage. According to Schieber, General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. top the list of Fortune 500 companies with high legacy costs, listed at $52.5 billion and $25.4 billion, respectively. Akron, Ohio-based American Electric Power Co. also made the list, with about $1.7 billion in retiree health care and pension liabilities. Ohio Rep. Pat Tiberi quizzed Schieber about the steel industry’s legacy cost problems, which Schieber said came about because some companies that promised the retirement benefits did not set aside money to pay for them. After the hearing, the Republican said Congress needs to consider the wider implications before granting the steel industry aid. “If we go down the road of doing this, where do we draw the line?” he said. “The next industry might be even larger, like the automobile industry.”p. Martin said all industries harmed by trade agreements, which he blames for steel industry problems, should be helped. “If these legislators are going to continue to make these trade agreements, then they need to look after the people who worked to build this country and paid their taxes,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

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