WASHINGTON – Gertrude Misterka is supposed to be enjoying her golden years, but the steelworker’s widow instead finds herself worrying about health insurance these days.
“I worry about how I will be able to afford my prescription medications if Bethlehem Steel cancels the prescription drug plan, which currently pays 80 percent on my prescription,” Misterka, 65, said Thursday in testimony to the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee.
The Baltimore resident is one of thousands of Marylanders who draw their pensions and their health insurance from the steel industry, but who have had their confidence shaken as the domestic steel industry has faltered.
Those “legacy costs” for retirees and their dependents are at the heart of a $10 billion question that must be answered before U.S. steel makers can rebound, said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
Bethlehem Steel, where Misterka’s husband, Charles, worked for 30 years, is now in bankruptcy. Massive retirements and a depressed domestic steel industry have stressed retired steelworkers’ health care and retirement security.
President Bush last week imposed tariffs of up to 30 percent on steel imports in an effort to protect domestic steel makers. But lawmakers and steelworkers claim that the battle is not over until legacy costs for the U.S. steel industry are addressed.
“The temporary tariffs are a good first step. They give the industry breathing room to restructure,” Mikulski said.
“But what are the potholes? Consolidation can’t happen until $10 billion in healthcare costs are addressed,” she said.
Some witnesses Thursday said the government should consider support for the industry, as it supported the airline industry after Sept. 11, but specific proposals were few and far between.
Steelworkers claim that cheap foreign imports are largely responsible for driving 32 American steel companies into bankruptcy since 1997. Half of those companies have shut down, causing the loss of retiree health care benefits for over 100,000 retirees and dependents.
There are about 142,000 active steelworkers today in the United States and approximately 600,000 retirees and dependents who rely on steel for healthcare and pension benefits, the United Steelworkers of America said. It said 23,000 of those retirees are in Maryland.
But retirees are not the only ones worried about their health care.
“I can tell you that just because a person is in the late 40s, they don’t worry any less about losing their healthcare insurance for themselves and their families than a retiree in his 70s,” said Jeffrey Mikula. The 46-year-old employee at Bethlehem Steel’s Sparrows Point mill in Baltimore has been hospitalized repeatedly for recurring kidney stones.
“It is a truly frightening prospect,” he said, “especially when you realize that just one accident or serious illness could wipe you out financially.”