UAW Retirees' Loss Of Benefits Hurts Businesses

Loss of vision and dental coverage by hundreds of thousands of retired GM and Chrysler autoworkers is causing problems for some practitioners and insurance companies.

LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- The loss of vision and dental coverage Wednesday by hundreds of thousands of retired autoworkers is causing problems for some practitioners and insurance companies.

Okemos-based Delta Dental, for instance, has laid off 30 people and will lay off 30 more now that nearly 300,000 retirees from General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC, their spouses and dependents no longer have company-provided dental coverage. The 60 lost jobs are 10 percent of Delta's work force.

The insurer is offering its own dental insurance policies to the retirees. But it won't end up with as much business as it got from the two automakers, who negotiated with the United Auto Workers union to do away with the coverage as they headed into bankruptcy earlier this year.

For dentists such as Timothy Bair and Kristy Beck-Bair at Dimondale Family Care near Lansing, the change likely will mean fewer patients, or at least fewer visits. About 10 percent of their 2,000 patients are GM retirees.

Many of those patients rushed in this past month to beat the June 30 deadline for insurance coverage. On Tuesday, 15 of the 17 patients the two dentists saw were GM retirees. But that flood is over.

One GM retiree who came in Tuesday decided against making a future appointment because of the lost coverage. Others were delaying their return for eight or nine months rather than the usual six.

For Fred Holmer Jr., Tuesday's visit was the last chance to get a dental checkup without having to pay $115 to $160. He's unhappy he's losing his insurance coverage, but figures he'll find a way to pay for future visits on his own.

"I don't think it's going to hurt me that much," said Holmer, who retired in April at age 49 after 30 years of work at GM.

Most of the retirees have had excellent dental and vision care for years and are caught up on those services, at least for now. Their pensions remain intact and are generous enough that routine dental and vision costs should remain affordable. Even with insurance, many still had to pick up most of the bill for their glasses and contact lenses, so losing that coverage isn't a catastrophic blow.

Still, extra costs raise concerns for retirees on fixed incomes. Medicare doesn't cover routine dental or vision care or the cost of glasses or contact lenses in most cases, so even retirees age 65 and over will have more out-of-pocket expenses.

That's why so many wanted to see their dentists and eye doctors last month. Dimondale Family Care office manager Diane Schad said calls came from regular patients as well as people who rarely scheduled appointments until they realized they were losing the chance for free visits.

At Waverly Vision Center in Lansing, "we got pretty booked up with GM" retirees, receptionist Betsy Glennon said. "It was hard to fit some of them in."

Hourly retirees learned a month ago that they'd be losing their dental and vision coverage on July 1. About 292,000 hourly retirees covered by UAW contracts are affected nationwide, as are about 358,000 of their spouses and dependents.

The vast majority of the hourly retirees -- 128,000 -- are in Michigan. Rounding out the top five states are New York with 14,300; Ohio with 29,000; Indiana with 28,000; and Florida with 10,500, said Delta Dental spokesman Ari Adler.

The retirees can buy their own insurance from Delta Dental in the next 60 days, with rates varying by state. Holmer said it's a tossup whether he's better with it or without it, since it would cost him $45 a month per person in Michigan.

"Where it's really hurting are the retirees who retired young yet who still have children," Schad said. The monthly premiums could get expensive for three or four people.

Michigan retirees can choose a cheaper policy at $28 a month, Adler said. But they'd have to pay 50 percent of their costs out of pocket, compared to 10 percent with the more expensive plan. Similar options were offered to salaried retirees at GM, Chrysler and Ford Motor Co. when their benefits were cut earlier this year.

Adler said he doesn't know yet how many of the hourly workers will buy insurance.

"We'd like to see all of them" do so, he said. "But I think some people are going to wonder if they should spend the money."

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