September 11, 2002
Steel health-care bill lacks consensus from lawmakers, owners
By PAUL M. KRAWZAK
Copley Washington correspondent
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers and the steel industry were divided Tuesday as a House subcommittee debated a proposal for the federal government to guarantee health-care benefits to steelworker retirees whose companies go out of business.
The panel heard testimony on a bill introduced by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., which would create a federal trust fund to pay for health care and remove a barrier to steel company consolidation.
The plan, financed by tariff revenues, taxes on steel sales and probably general government revenues, would help an
estimated 100,000 retirees who lost their health benefits when their former employers, such as defunct LTV Steel, went
out of business.
Coverage under the bill would resemble that provided by Medicare, the federal health insurance program for those 65 and older. The bill also would provide some prescription drug coverage.
While traditional steel companies that make their product from scratch, such as Bethlehem Steel, favor the plan, the fast-growing steel minimills are opposed to it.
James F. Collins, a former president of the Steel Manufacturers Association, which represents minimills such as Nucor, argued against the benefit.
Noting that minimills now produce almost 50 percent of the steel made in the United States, Collins said using taxpayer
funds to provide medical care to steelworkers “could well set an inappropriate precedent and result in many industries
looking for similar assistance.”
The plan would reward the “least efficient U.S. steel producers,” he said, explaining that struggling steel companies could jettison their obligations to pay health benefits to retirees by being acquired by another steel maker.
The plan also ran into opposition from lawmakers who said it is unfair to guarantee health coverage to steel company
retirees when thousands of other Americans who lost jobs in other industries do not get health care.
The thousands of steelworkers who have lost health care “pale in significance to the number of people who lost jobs in
the textile industry,” said Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga. “We’re doing nothing to help those people,” he said, adding that many textile workers who lost their jobs are women who never had good benefits.
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., another skeptic of the plan, added that workers in aerospace, mining, logging and other industries have lost their jobs and health benefits. They didn’t get government-paid health care, he said.
Backers of the legislation, such as William J. Klinefelter, chief lobbyist for the United Steelworkers, argued that steel is a
During the past 20 years, Klinefelter said, the U.S. government has not responded effectively to illegal dumping of steel at artificially low prices in the United States.
Klinefelter said the industry needs government action on health benefits in addition to the three-year tariffs that Bush imposed in March to raise the cost of foreign steel and give U.S. steel makers an opportunity to restructure. Meanwhile, steel company management and the union need to work together to improve efficiency, he said.
Backers of the plan also argue that a domestic steel industry is vital for national security, even though only a fraction of
all American-made steel winds up being used by the military.
The claim by opponents of the bill that some laid-off steelworkers will get another job and gain health benefits that way
“We have an exceedingly high number who are unemployed” from steel, Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, said of his
district. “I don’t know where these people are going to get jobs where they are going to get health insurance.”
Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Lorain, drew a mild rebuke from Rep. Jack Quinn, R-N.Y., even though both support the plan.
Brown had criticized the administration for approving more than 700 exceptions to the steel tariffs for steel products
that the administration said are unavailable from U.S. steel makers.
Brown said the administration “sold us out (making the tariffs) almost meaningless.”
Quinn said Brown’s language was not “particularly helpful” while attempting to win support for the steel industry.
Brown also accused Republican leadership in the GOP-majority House of blocking proposals to provide health insurance
Co-sponsors of the bill from Ohio include Strickland, Brown, and Reps. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, and Dennis Kucinich,
In Illinois, supporters include Reps. Ray LaHood and John Shimkus, who are Republicans, and several Democrats.