Unions wary of new health care law

| Saturday, May 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

WASHINGTON — Some labor unions that enthusiastically backed President Obama's health care overhaul are frustrated and angry, fearful that it will jeopardize benefits for millions of their members.

Union leaders warn that unless the problem is fixed, there could be consequences for Democrats facing re-election next year.

“It makes an untruth out of what the president said — that if you like your insurance, you could keep it,” said Joe Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. “That is not going to be true for millions of workers now.”

The problem lies in the unique multi-employer health plans that cover unionized workers in retail, construction, transportation and other industries with seasonal or temporary employment. Known as Taft-Hartley plans, they are jointly administered by unions and smaller employers that pool resources to offer more than 20 million workers and family members continuous coverage, even during times of unemployment.

The union plans were more costly to run than traditional single-employer health plans.

And Obama's Affordable Care Act has added to that cost — for the unions' and other plans — by requiring health plans to cover dependents up to age 26, eliminate annual or lifetime coverage limits and extend coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

“We're concerned that employers will be increasingly tempted to drop coverage through our plans and let our members fend for themselves on the health exchanges,” said David Treanor, director of health care initiatives at the Operating Engineers union.

Workers seeking coverage in the state-based marketplaces, known as exchanges, can qualify for subsidies, determined by a sliding scale based on income. By contrast, the new law does not allow workers in the union plans to receive similar subsidies.

Bob Laszewski, a health care industry consultant, said the real fear among unions is that “a lot of these labor contracts are very expensive, and now employers are going to have an alternative to very expensive labor health benefits.”

“If the workers can get benefits that are as good through Obamacare in the exchanges, then why do you need the union?” Laszewski asked. “In my mind, what the unions are fearing is that workers for the first time can get very good health benefits for a subsidized cost someplace other than the employer.”

However, Laszewski said, it was unlikely employers would drop the union plans immediately because they are subject to ongoing collective bargaining agreements.

Labor unions have been among the president's closest allies, spending millions of dollars to help him win re-election and help Democrats keep their majority in the Senate.

The wrangling over health care occurs as unions have continued to see steady declines in membership and attacks on public employee unions in state legislatures across the country.

The Obama administration walks a fine line between defending the president's signature legislative achievement and not angering a powerful constituency as it looks to the 2014 elections.

Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters, said unions have spent more than a year trying to get a regulatory fix that would allow low-income workers in union plans to receive subsidies, too. But labor leaders say they have been told it won't happen. And new legislation is unlikely anytime soon.

Both Hanson and Schaitberger said the frustration could spill over into the 2014 election cycle if union concerns are not addressed.

“It started out with some anxiety, and I think it's translated into more anger,” Schaitberger said.

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