Tacoma picket addresses longshore medical benefits

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TACOMA — Some two dozen active and retired Longshore Union workers Monday picketed the Tacoma offices of the Pacific Maritime Association to put the association of waterfront employers on notice of what the longshore workers say are major flaws in a new medical benefits payment system.

Those workers say their medical bills in some instances are being paid months late or are being wrongly denied outright.

The Tacoma pickets were part of a coastwide protest against the PMA's medical insurance system adopted in January. In Los Angeles and Long Beach, pickets there disrupted loading and unloading of ships at several terminals.

The Monday protest at the PMA offices here wasn't the first such picketing in Tacoma. In late April, longshore retiree picketing shut down the Port of Tacoma's largest container terminal, Washington United Terminal, over those same issues.

Monday's picketing didn't halt any port operations here.

Pacific Coast Pensioners Association spokesman Mike Jagielski said that while some doctors and health care providers are being paid promptly by the association's benefit management company, Zenith American Solutions, others have been forced into collections because of months-long delays.

"Bills still aren't being paid as they should according to our contract," said Jaglielski.

Scott Mason, president of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 23 in Tacoma, said he's never seen such poor service in his decades-long waterfront career.

"I have members coming into my office every day saying they have $20,000 or $30,000 in medical bills that Zenith is not paying," he said.

The PMA, which contracts with the ILWU for waterfront labor on the West Coast, said that bills properly covered by the labor agreement are being paid promptly.

"International Longshore and Warehouse Union members are waging the wrong battle today. Rather than picketing employers and disrupting terminal operations as part of its 'Battle for Our Benefits' work action, the ILWU members should join PMA in taking aim at tens of millions of dollars in fraud and abuse in the union's health care plan," the employers association said. The PMA represents shipping lines, terminal operators and ports in their dealings with the Longshore Union.

PMA spokesman Wade Gates said health care providers are submitting bills that include inflated charges, uncovered procedures and duplicate requests for reimbursements.

"Since January, the fraud administrator has initially identified tens of millions of dollars in potential abuses by doctors and other providers. These abuses include billing for services that were not provided; charging for noncovered services such as cosmetic surgery; and inflating patients' bills by unnecessarily itemizing related charges. The trustees' vigilance is necessary to ensure that the ILWU-PMA health plan operates responsibly on behalf of its members and pays only those claims that can be substantiated," the PMA said.

Some picketing longshore workers said Zenith is refusing to pay for services that were paid by the previous plan administrator and which were specifically allowed in the union contract.

The longshore health plan is one of the more comprehensive in the country, with few deductibles and full coverage of procedures. Longshore workers pay no premium themselves for the insurance.

Longshore member Gail Ross was at Monday's protest with her 18-year-old son, D.K, who uses a wheelchair. Since Zenith began handling benefits payments, she said, she has accumulated some $50,000 in medical bills formerly paid by the PMA.

"We have to depend on the state to provide him health care when we have health insurance that should be providing his health care," said Gail Ross.