Self-insured L+M does not have to notify workers of coverage loss

New London - Locked-out nurses and technicians at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital learned Monday that state law does not protect them from the immediate loss of their health care coverage.

But Matt O'Connor, a spokesman for two AFT Connecticut union locals, said that his organization has referred the matter to the U.S. Department of Labor and that federal representatives would be meeting today with locked-out workers at the union hall to review their options.

O'Connor said he wants to find out what kind of federal relief might be available to help union workers, many of whom are single parents, navigate the difficulty of being out of work and having to pay for their own medical insurance. The union previously announced a $20,000 defense fund to help members undergoing economic hardships.

"It's a double whammy," O'Connor said. "Shame on the corporation for locking out their nurses and technicians and putting them in a double jeopardy position."

A state Department of Labor spokeswoman told The Day that L+M, because it is self-insured, does not have to provide 20 days' notice before dropping coverage, as is required of companies that do not assume such risks. Striking members of AFT Connecticut had complained that, though the hospital informed them of the possibility of losing coverage, they did not get any formal written notification.

But Nancy Steffens, a Labor Department spokeswoman, said L+M has no legal obligation to provide such notification.

"L+M is self-insured for health insurance, therefore they do not fall within (the statute) ... which provides for the notice of cancellation of health insurance," Steffens said, citing the opinion of the department's Program Policy legal unit. "The definition of insurance ... does not apply to self-insured companies."

O'Connor, however, said he couldn't understand hospital management's decision to drop coverage so quickly in light of the fact that it is a health care institution.

"Even if it's permissible to do so, it's certainly not the behavior they would be expected to engage in," he said. "It's not what the community wants to see from their community hospital."

Insurance coverage for the nearly 800 union workers ended Nov. 30, the day that L+M began a lockout after employees went on a four-day strike. Workers, who had intended to return to their jobs at the end of the strike period despite having failed to come to contract terms with the hospital, were protesting management's strategy of saving money by using nonunion labor at affiliated locations outside the main hospital.

L+M spokesman Mike O'Farrell has said that striking workers became eligible Dec. 1 for coverage under COBRA, the federal program that provides temporary health coverage to groups that otherwise would lose their benefits. The union documented one case in which a locked-out worker would be required to pay more than $1,400 a month for health coverage.

Employees would have to pay the full premium for medical, dental and vision coverage, according to a strike fact sheet produced by L+M and acquired by The Day, plus a 2 percent administrative fee tacked on by COBRA.

Other coverage, such as disability and life insurance, also would be terminated in the event of a strike, according to the fact sheet, unless an employee wishes to extend coverage with a personal policy. L+M declined to provide the fact sheet to The Day.

While the Labor Department said L+M didn't have to give notice that it was dropping medical coverage, its Board of Review offered an opinion that the hospital's lockout of employees would allow workers to claim unemployment benefits.

Normally, striking workers do not receive unemployment compensation, Steffens said, but there is an exception.

"If a claimant's unemployment is due to the existence of a labor dispute which constitutes a lockout, the claimant is eligible for benefits," she said.

O'Connor said the union started helping workers with unemployment documentation last week. The first unemployment hearing related to locked-out L+M workers is scheduled today at the Labor Department's Shaw's Cove offices, he added.

"There's been a lot of support, a lot of sympathy for the nurses and technicians and their plight," he said.

The hospital has been staffed with replacement workers since the strike and lockout began, and L+M said union workers would not be allowed back to work until a new contract is in place, for fear of intermittent disruptions of patient services.

l.howard@theday.com

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