Workers at the Firestone Polymers plant in Orange, Texas, near the Louisiana border, are on strike to protest changes to their health care plan proposed by the company during recent contract negotiations. The company wants to make the workers’ current health care plan more expensive in hopes that the changes will encourage workers to switch to a new high-deductible health plan.
Firestone Polymers produces synthetic rubber, and the processes involved expose workers to a number of hazardous chemical, making them reluctant to accept changes that would make their health care less affordable and less accessible.
The United Steelworkers, the workers’ union, says that in addition to making health care more expensive, the raises offered by the company don’t offset the higher health care expenses and the company wants to make future health care changes non-negotiable.
“Local 13-836 members are concerned about their health care costs because they are exposed to highly hazardous chemicals and work in a dangerous environment,” said a statement released by USW. “They are more likely to need medical care because of their workplace exposure.”
The company proposes changing the workers’ current comprehensive health plan by tripling the deductible for individuals and family members and reducing the amount paid by insurance after the deductible is meant.
Firestone is also offering a so-called consumer driven health high-deductible health plan with a lower premium in order in hopes that the lower premium will encourage workers to switch to the high-deductible plan. The high-deductible plan would increase deductibles for workers and their families six-fold.
High deductible plans are gaining popularity with employers because they lower employer costs. Sometimes an employer will include a health savings account as an incentive for workers to enroll in these plans.
But high-deducible plans come with high risks for the consumer.
A study by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation found that high-deductible health plans created financial burdens for people with chronic health problems. The report was based on survey data and health care claims of people with chronic conditions. Some were enrolled in high-deductible plans; others in comprehensive plans. The researchers found that twice as many people enrolled in high-deductible plans reported financial burdens.
Another study published in the Journal of General Medicine found that high-deductible plans also were more likely to cause people to delay seeking treatment. According to an abstract of the study, “Membership in an (high deductible health plan) and lower income were each independently associated with higher probability of delayed/forgone care due to cost.”
An earlier study published in the American Journal of Managed Care found that high deductible cause families to reduce their medical spending, which leads to lower health care costs, but the study’s researchers also found the families studied “eliminated some care that is clearly beneficial. . . . While childhood vaccination rates increased among families in traditional health plans, they fell among families in high-deductible health plans. Rates of mammography, cervical cancer screening and colorectal cancer screening also fell among those with high-deductible health plans relative to those in other plans.”
“We saw that patients reduced preventive care, and if this persists, it is likely to have health consequences in the future,” said Amelia Haviland, co-author of the study and a statistician at RAND, a non-profit research group. “These cutbacks could cause a spike in health care costs down the road if people end up sicker and need more-intensive treatment.”
The strike has been going on now for a week. The union said that it’s willing to resume negotiating but that the members remained united in wanting to protect their health care.