Fuller and Walton were among the hundreds who attended standing-room-only meetings at the Local 1165 union hall in Coatesville to learn more about their health-insurance options.
"It sure is sad," said Robert Barnett, 63, who retired in 1999 after 40 years in the Coatesville mill, which was acquired by Bethlehem Steel in 1998.
"You're halfway comfortable. Then all this comes along and you're going to lose a lot of it."
Barnett, who lives in West Grove, was standing outside the union hall chatting with Kenneth Brock, an Avondale resident who retired 14 months ago. Both said they would likely attend the counseling sessions being held at the union hall today, tomorrow and Friday.
About two-thirds of the union retirees from Coatesville are 65 or older, making them eligible for Medicare. If they choose COBRA continuation coverage, their cost for individual basic coverage plus major medical would be $270 a month. They have been paying $164 under the Bethlehem Steel plan.
Both figures would be double for a retiree and spouse and do not include prescription-drug benefits. There are additional costs for plans that cover gaps in Medicare.
COBRA is a federal program that allows people who lose company-paid benefits to continue their health coverage if they can afford to pay the full premium.
Bethlehem Steel retirees - including about 40,000 in Pennsylvania - will be notified in April of their eligibility for COBRA. After receiving that letter, they will have 60 days to decide whether to take COBRA and then 45 days after that to pay the initial COBRA premium.
Retirees who are at least 55 but not eligible for Medicare would face a much steeper increase were it not for a 65 percent tax credit under the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Reform Act of 2002. For them, the COBRA premium would be $577 a month - before that tax credit - compared with $168 a month for Bethlehem Steel's plan.
But until a system is in place that advances the tax credit so that retirees only have to write a check for 35 percent of the total - or just over $200 - many will have a hard time coming up with that much cash.
Bethlehem Steel's 17,100 nonunion retirees potentially face an even steeper bill. The company has not yet agreed to offer them COBRA benefits. If it does not, they would need to find individual health insurance after March 31.
When Bethlehem Steel filed for bankruptcy protection in October 2001, it had a $3 billion obligation for retiree health care. In 2002, the company spent $225 million on retiree health-care and life-insurance benefits.
Bethlehem Steel, which finalized its agreement of sale to International Steel Group Inc. last week, is expected on Monday to officially ask Bankruptcy Court for permission to cancel retiree health-care and life-insurance benefits. The steelworkers union dropped its opposition after the company agreed to offer COBRA coverage.
Among the officials who spoke at the meetings yesterday was Jack E. Vogelsong of the Pennsylvania Department of Aging. He told the retirees that there were many state programs that provide financial assistance for senior citizens, such as rent rebates, subsidized housing, energy assistance, and Meals on Wheels.
He said it was particularly important for surviving spouses to take advantage of these benefits because they tended to be lower income. The average pension benefit for Bethlehem Steel's 10,744 surviving spouses was less than $100 a month in September 2001, the union said.
Retirees and their spouses are sad and angry about what they are going through.
Joanne Ash said her husband, Art, 69, retired after 43 years with Lukens. "It's a long time to end up with very little." The Coatesville couple's monthly income is $2,400.
"It's devastating," said Parkesburg resident Ralph Garris, who retired in 1977 after 30 years with Lukens. Garris, 74, and his wife pay $374 each month out of his $600 monthly pension for Blue Cross-Blue Shield major medical.
Garris, who also collects $800 a month from Social Security, expects that his current plan might cost more than $750 under COBRA. "We'll keep COBRA just long enough to get set up with something we can afford."
A machinist by trade and a registered auto mechanic, Garris said he might try to get a job to avoid dipping into savings.
One of Eleanor Fuller's sons has worked at the Bethlehem Steel mill in Coatesville ever since high school. He is 56 now. "He had to wait until he was 18," she said. His father worked there, so he was able to get in. "Times were good then."
Contact staff writer Harold Brubaker at 215-854-4651 or email@example.com.
Help for Retirees
The following are sources of information on health coverage for Bethlehem Steel retirees:
Medicare: 1-800-633-4227 or www.medicare.gov.
Apprise: A free health-insurance counseling program for Pennsylvanians age 60 and older: 1-800-782-7067.
TAA health-insurance tax credit: 1-877-872-5627.
Counseling: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today, tomorrow and Friday at United Steelworkers Local 1165 Hall, 750 Charles St., Coatesville. For information, call 1-610-384-9180.