Union Blocks Foreign Healthcare Plan ; despite Opposition, Other Companies Are Looking to Send Workers Abroad for Medical Treatment

Article excerpt

Carl Garrett, an Appalachian paper mill worker, had hoped to go to India this month for medical care - but it didn't work out that way.

The planned journey to New Delhi by Mr. Garrett, a Leicester, N.C., resident wasn't just about fixing his aching left shoulder. His employer, Blue Ridge Paper Products of Canton, N.C., wanted to send a message to American hospitals: Control costs or we'll give our insured workers the option of going overseas for quality, but low-cost care.

Garrett, who belongs to the United Steelworkers, would have been the first union member to go overseas for medical care. But after his pioneering trip became public, the union stepped in and threatened to file an injunction to stop it.

In response, Blue Ridge Paper withdrew the proposal to send its employee to India for surgery. So two days before Garrett was to leave, he had to unpack his bags.

The union, which recently negotiated a new contract with the milk- carton factory containing healthcare provisions for its members, worried that volunteer trips overseas to receive medical care would soon become mandatory even for children and the elderly as companies seek to cut costs and increase profits.

Garrett's case shows how the tug-of-war between labor and corporations on healthcare options "is having a tremendous impact on how we live on a day to day basis," says Norm Solomon, a labor expert at Fairfield University in Connecticut. "If costs keep going up the way they have, it's going to be difficult to maintain them in unionized firms."

American workers' healthcare costs have risen 60 percent in the past five years, according to a new study by HR consultants TowersPerrin. Those cost increases are not only being borne directly by employees, but companies are cutting an average of 1 percent off annual raises to contain healthcare expenditures, TowersPerrin concludes.

Garrett's trip was intended to be a test case for Blue Ridge Paper's plan to offer its employees and their dependents the option of seeking medical care overseas beginning in 2007. For several years, the company failed in its attempt to obtain discounts from healthcare providers for its 5,000 covered workers. …