250 WGA members might lose health care

Before the WGA went on strike, its leaders repeatedly assured members they would retain eligibility within the guild-industry health plan for the duration of the work stoppage.

But the assertion that “the clock will stop” — made on numerous occasions to members by WGA West president Patric Verrone and exec director David Young — turned out to be wrong.

About 250 WGA members will lose their eligibility April 1 because they did not meet the plan’s 12-month earnings threshold of $30,823 as of Dec. 31. That’s about 40% higher than the usual number who lose eligibility, and that figure will probably jump significantly in July — because of the loss of earnings during the strike.

Typically, about 5,500 WGA members are covered by the health plan.

The issue has been percolating among rank-and-file WGA members in recent days. Many members had presumed that if they were covered by the health plan at the start of the strike Nov. 5, they would retain their coverage through the strike.

According to several attendees at a WGA membership meeting on Nov. 1 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, Verrone told the crowd of 3,000 members at one point “the clock will stop” on eligibility for the health plan. That pronouncement was greeted with enthusiasm.

In addition, WGA trustee John Auerbach had posted repeatedly on the members-only Writer Action website that members would retain their eligibility for the plan during the strike. He posted to that effect as recently as early January.

In recent weeks, however, WGA leaders have started admitting there’s been no change in the health plan’s eligibility rules. And the WGA West board voted last week to pay for a month of COBRA coverage for any member who has lost health-care coverage eligibility because of the strike.

“We hope that there will be an agreement before April 1,” WGA spokesman Neal Sacharow told Daily Variety on Wednesday. “The board made this decision to protect members from any possible effects of the strike.”

At a $1,000 monthly cost for the COBRA policy, the move by the board places the WGA on the hook for $250,000 if the strike lasts that long.

But Sacharow refused to respond to questions as to why Verrone had provided members with incorrect information about the health plan.

The plan is jointly overseen by 34 trustees — 17 reps each from the guild and the industry. The WGA trustees include David Young, VP David Weiss, negotiating committee chief John Bowman, negotiating committee members Neal Baer and Steven Schwartz and WGA execs Mona Mangan, Paul Nawrocki, Ann Widdifield and Countess Williams.

WGA plan administrator Terrence Young also refused to answer questions Wednesday about the dissemination of misinformation by WGA leaders. But informed sources said guild officials never officially asked the health plan to approve changing the eligibility rules because of the strike.

WGA members who contacted the health plan in recent months with questions about retaining eligibility during a strike were informed that no rule changes had taken place. But the plan and the guild have not issued any formal announcement about the plan since the strike began.

One WGA member said Verrone has responded to inquiries in recent weeks by asserting that guild leaders had been operating on the assumption that the health plan would allow members to retain eligibility during a strike, claiming this was done during the 1988 strike. However, in 1988, the plan merely granted members a three-month extension to earn eligibility after the five-month strike ended.

A recent email message from strike captains to members amplified the WGA West board’s plans, saying the board may continue the COBRA payments on a monthly basis if the strike continues. And it also said the final deal between the guild and the AMPTP could include a recommendation that extended coverage be provided for those impacted by the strike.

“As part of any future strike settlement, the parties may recommend to the trustees of the health fund that the eligibility rules be modified to address loss of coverage due to the strike,” the message said. “In 1988, the trustees agreed to provide extended coverage for some members whose ability to earn was significantly diminished during that strike. While we can make no promises — half of the health fund trustees are representatives of management — we can say that we will attempt to reach a similar understanding after the current strike.”

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