Editor's note: This story is part of an occasional series that looks at how the Affordable Care Act affects the region.
Decent health care coverage has long been a draw of joining a union. As the Affordable Care Act continues to roll out, union leaders are trying to protect those plans.
"That's why I got in the union at a young age - for pension and health care," Randy Palmateer said.
Palmateer, business manager for the Northwestern Indiana Building & Construction Trades Council - which represents 50,000 men and women in four counties - is among union leaders trying to balance support for the Affordable Care Act while protecting workers' health plans.
"We know it's not perfect," Palmateer said. "They've got a one-size-fits-all model, but there are some kinks that need to be worked out."
Specifically, the legislation needs to make sure Taft-Hartley plans are protected. Those are nonprofit multi-employer health care plans that have benefit funds administered by a joint board representing the union and the management.
They're often used in fields that have temporary or seasonal employment, such as construction.
A multi-employer plan is a collectively bargained plan maintained by more than one employer, usually within the same or related industries, and a labor union, according to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Organization.
"I've got a guy who can have nine W-2s in one year," Palmateer said.
There are concerns about the interpretation of Taft-Hartley plans under the Affordable Care Act and whether workers would be eligible for subsidies.
"I just think Obamacare didn't take us into consideration as much as it should have," Palmateer said. "Much like the entire business community, our health and welfare trust are working to comply with the ACA. Whether we agree with it or not, it's a moot point. It's going to be implemented."
Ed Maher, spokesman for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150, said the union is determined to provide quality health care, despite unfunded mandates put forth by Obamacare.
The requirement to cover children up to 26 years old brought thousands of new lives into its plan, he said.
"Our members, they understand that they're going to continue getting their insurance through their multi-employer fund," Maher said. "But they absolutely understand the act has made it much more difficult and expensive to provide that level of coverage."
The care offered has not changed or been reduced, Maher said.
“Especially in the construction industry, people use their body as their tool,” he said. “It's so important that these people have quality care.”
Maher does not expect to see monumental changes for the union upon the Oct. 1 open enrollment start date or on Jan. 1, when the individual mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act goes into effect. It is difficult to know what the full impact will be.
“We've been working with consultants and some of the best minds," he said. "You can talk to the smartest people about the Affordable Care Act and about the exchange, and everyone is scratching their heads. I don't think I've met a single person who has a firm grasp on exactly what this means.”
It is full of unknowns, he said.
“It's a very, very difficult situation to plan for,” Maher said. “We provide health care for more than 65,000 people. To give them quality care that's also affordable, it's very very challenging to navigate the unknown.”
Across Illinois, Indiana and Iowa, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 counts 23,000 members, and spouses and children account for the rest. The union participates in a national coordinating committee on multi-employer plans and hopes to get some changes.
"They're speaking with lawmakers to try to find ways to make this fair and take away glaring inequities," Maher said.
In contract negotiations, health care is the first thing that comes up, said Dan Murchek, president of the Northwest Indiana Federation of Labor.
It is important to ensure the union membership is provided for, and affordable health care should be extended to all, he said.
"In the United States of America, everybody deserves health care," he said. "The emergency room is not health care."