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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, March 18, 2006

Automakers' proposal to raise healthcare cost splits retirees

By Dee-Ann Durbin
Associated Press

Larry Bronson, 70, who worked for Ford for 42 years before retiring in 1998, collects $20,000 in annual pension benefits. He fears the pros-pect of paying several hundred dollars more each year for healthcare.

CARLOS OSORIO | Associated Press

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DETROIT Retired auto-workers who spent decades together on assembly lines and picket lines find themselves facing off in a dispute over health benefits.

Some support an effort by General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and the United Auto Workers to require retirees to pay several hundred dollars more each year for their healthcare, saying it's necessary to stem the automakers' losses. But others say GM, Ford and the union are breaking their promises and trying to stifle retirees' objections.

"It kind of upsets me that they're playing a shell game and they're only giving the information they want to give," said Larry Bronson, 70, who worked at Ford's Rouge complex for 42 years until he retired in 1998.

Under the proposed agreements, GM and Ford workers who retired from non-salaried jobs would pay deductibles, premiums and copayments for the first time, up to $752 annually for families and $370 for individuals. The amounts could rise, depending on the amount of money in two new trust funds that will be used to reduce payments.

The agreements require current employees who work for hourly wages to contribute a percentage of future pay increases to the trust funds. GM says it will put $3 billion into its fund by 2011; Ford says it will contribute $108 million. DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group is seeking a similar deal with the UAW.

Current workers at GM and Ford have approved the settlements, but the automakers need federal court approval. U.S. District Judge Robert Cleland considered objections from GM retirees last week and is expected to rule on GM's agreement later this month. Judge Arthur Tarnow will consider objections from Ford retirees at a May 31 hearing.

Bronson plans to attend the Ford hearing to voice his frustration. Bronson, who lives in Lapeer County's Marathon Township, said that he will eventually need a costly back operation and that his wife is on oxygen for a pulmonary blockage and takes 20 different medications each day.

"I'm going to have to do without to make those payments," said Bronson, whose Ford pension totals $20,000 a year.

Of the 476,000 GM retirees and dependents who received notices about the changes,1,250 filed objections. Ford began sending out notices to 150,000 retirees and dependents last week; they have until April 28 to file an objection.

Bonnie Lauria, 64, a GM retiree from West Branch, says most retirees support the agreements because they feel they've been fortunate to have generous benefits for so long. Lauria, who worked for GM for 28 years before retiring in 2000, has an annual pension of $20,000.

Others say many of the GM retirees didn't know they had a right to object because the 80-page explanation was confusing.