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Retirees rage as Century ends health care coverage

Retirees of a mothballed Century Aluminum plant who are too young for Medicare say they're worried how they'll survive when their health care coverage is cut off Jan. 1.

Century closed the Ravenswood factory in 2009, laying off more than 600 workers and devastating the region. Now, retirees are angry the company is breaking past promises of a comfortable retirement in exchange for lower wages.

Randy Moore of the United Steelworkers union said Century workers made below the industry norm because members of Local 5668 approved contracts directing more money into their benefits and less into their take-home pay.

"They have paid for those benefits," he said. "These benefits have actually, literally, been stolen from these members here and these retirees."

Century declined to discuss the matter except to tell West Virginia Public Broadcasting it regrets the impact on retirees. The company said it will help with payments for six months for those who want to continue buying coverage.

Century, based in Monterey, Calif., also owns a struggling smelter in Hawesville, Ky., and has a 50 percent stake in a Jamaican bauxite operation and an alumina plant in Gramercy, La.

An e-mailed statement from the company said it believes that "taking the actions necessary to sustain profitable operations at Ravenswood is a worthy priority."

"In other words," said 76-year-old Luther Gibson, "they're going to take my and my wife's health care to start the factory back up."

Until last year, Century retirees who were eligible for Medicare also received supplemental insurance though the company. Younger retirees had the same coverage as when they were working.

"We stayed with that company 30, 40 years, anticipating a good retirement," said 70-year-old James King, whose wife is 63 and not Medicare-eligible. "A lot of us could have went other places, no doubt about it. But we didn't. ... We stayed there, anticipating what was due us. Now they say it's gone.

"Where did that money go?" he asks. "This company, they didn't give us nothing. We paid for our insurance, our retirement, everything. Where is that money at?"

Moore, of the USW, said the Early Retiree Reinsurance Program approved under the new federal health care law could have helped. It's designed to provide relief to companies that can't maintain health benefits for younger retirees.

As of late October, nearly 3,600 employers had applied to participate.

"Century just took the position, 'Look. We're not interested, so we're just getting out of it,'" Moore said.

For 61-year-old Gary Knotts, that means one thing: If he develops a serious illness before he turns 65, he says, "the company signed my death warrant."