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DIANE MAKAR MURPHY As steel industry crumbles, it's retirees who fall hard



Published: Thu, April 25, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



There are plenty of people to be mad at. The government. The owners of failed LTV Steel. Even the union. But bafflement seems a better word than anger to describe the feelings of many of the 12,000 retirees and spouses who lost supplemental insurance and prescription benefits when LTV flat-lined. They're hunting solutions.

One is Emil Perunko. After 32 years in the mills, the Warren resident wonders, what are you owed?

Very little, as it turns out.

Perunko is soft-spoken, gray-haired and 87. His prescription benefits and free health care went south with LTV -- the caretaker of his Republic Steel benefits. Since February, he's had to look at new supplemental health insurance plans, think about prescription costs, and re-examine life insurance needs.

(Just what DOES life insurance cost for an 87-year -old? A $2,000 policy is $720 a year. With longevity in his family -- his sister is 101 -- he doesn't think that's a good idea.)

But while these worry Perunko, what really surprises him is that no one acted to stop what was obvious to him for more than half a century -- the demise of the U.S. steel industry.

Another case

Harold Price, younger at 78, a robust man with a ready smile, will go to the Department of Veterans Affairs shortly to arrange for his prescription drugs. He's lucky. He and his wife need $544.93 in prescriptions monthly. Without the VA, the best Price can get is a prescription card and save 10 percent. His pension is only $737 a month.

Though he's taken it all in stride, Price, a Warren resident, also voices long-held doubts about the steel industry.

The scramble for everyone has been momentous. Union officials have hunted a replacement health insurer willing to accept pre-existing conditions and keep fees down. When they thought they had one, the company pulled out, leaving 2,000 people unsure of their futures yet again. A second insurer stepped up, but the price tag did too, $30 per person to about $260 a month.

And the union is still looking for a solution, with officials getting calls from concerned retirees and spouses every day.

Saw it coming

To listen to Perunko, Price, and Bill Luoma, United Steelworkers Local 1375 retiree group president, any chump could have seen it coming for years -- any chump but those in Washington.

"Now, you can believe this if you want to or not," Perunko said, leaning forward in his seat and across a wide table in the union office, "but I was nervous back in the 1950s. Our government sent money to Japan to modernize their plants. Their products were cheaper already. And I thought, by God, that's what's going to happen with steel in the future."

Later, Perunko said, a Republic Steel manager was sent to Japan to help set up their rolling mill.

"And we sent a bunch over to Scotland," Price added.

"Nor did the government step in and enforce existing tariffs, and foreign companies were allowed to dump steel here," Luoma said.

Finally, Luoma said, the system in place to protect benefits was dismantled for LTV. The union, he said, failed to have protection of pension funds and benefits be a part of the contract. Funds were spent on unwise investments, he said.

Just a preview

But the dilemma facing LTV and Republic Steel retirees is just a preview of what others will face, the three insist. Again, you don't need a crystal ball to see it coming.

According to Luoma, "Other companies are going to be affected. Anyone with a union contract can be. Many corporations will try to get out of health-care costs. And people are changing jobs much more often now. We truly believe we need national health care."

And what, Perunko wonders, will the government do about younger retirees' pensions as other companies fail. "My check is smaller than what they'll get. How will [the government] be able to guarantee their pensions?"

As a parting shot, he asked, "Did you see what the CEO of Anthem made last year? $8 million." Actually a quick check online put the figure at around $15 million.

What's wrong with this picture ...

murphy@vindy.com




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