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Status Of Health Benefits Remains Unclear As United Auto Workers' Strike Continues


It is Day 9 of a strike that involves nearly 50,000 General Motors workers. While contract negotiations continue between the company and the United Autoworkers, there is a more immediate dispute. GM and the union are telling different stories about what's going on with the health benefits of striking workers and their families, benefits that are famously generous. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin reports.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Brooke Wilkerson's husband Tyler took his job with GM partly because of the health benefits. Two of their kids were born with heart conditions.

BROOKE WILKERSON: They both require lifelong cardio care.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: At his old job, managing their kids' care put them thousands of dollars in debt. As an electrician at GM's plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., they pay no premiums.

WILKERSON: The insurance is phenomenal. It covers pretty much everything except for the co-pays.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Twenty-five dollars for a doctor's visit. When the strike started, she thought they'd be covered until the end of the month, then she saw on social media that GM had cut off health benefits. She called her insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

WILKERSON: They said it had been canceled by GM.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: This was just a few days before heart appointments for her kids. Her 2-year-old daughter has a hole in her heart.

WILKERSON: She had her well check visit a few weeks ago, and her pediatrician was concerned about how her heart murmur sounded. So for a few days there, we didn't know what was going to happen.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She says her husband scrambled to sign up for COBRA to extend their coverage, which will be paid out of the union's strike fund. And yesterday, they made it to their daughter's appointment.

In a statement, GM stressed to NPR that workers should have no interruptions in their coverage and said asserting that GM cut off benefits is, quote, "absolutely false." The UAW told NPR this is not how benefits are usually handled during a strike and that its members were caught off guard.

Meanwhile, at the bargaining table...

KRISTIN DZICZEK: Health care benefits are really a go-to-war issue for the UAW.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: That's Kristin Dziczek, vice president of the Center for Automotive Research.

DZICZEK: However, the company is facing increased costs. They're paying about a billion dollars a year for active health care, and they don't have any way to really control that.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So this is the bigger question: After the strike, will workers like Tyler Wilkerson and his family have the same phenomenal health benefits to go back to?

Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.