Former employees of closed Harbor Paper mill in Hoquiam, Washington, claim their medical insurance lapsed two months before company said it would, was to end in May 2013, two months after mill shut down; now, some are left with unpaid medical bills

ABERDEEN, Washington , January 25, 2014 () – Jeff Thomas has been through five mill closures in his 55 years. But none of them, he said, were as bad as last year's Harbor Paper closure.

Nearly a year later his family is managing to say afloat, surviving on wages earned by his wifeSusan Thomas, a bar manager who makes $13 per hour. They have a roof over their head inOcean Shores and the cars are paid off, so on the surface, the family is doing just fine.

The reality is more stark. Susan Thomas has ovarian cancer and they're on the verge of medical bankruptcy. And they're still uninsured.

Several Harbor Paper employees are in similar situations, according to Ed Mustard, another former millworker. He said that when the mill closed, employees were told they would have medical insurance through the end of May. In fact, coverage stopped in March, leaving several families with thousands of dollars in unpaid medical bills.

Mustard said the company had every opportunity to inform him of the lapse.

He visited Harbor Paper's human resources office every month to pay for additional medical coverage.

Management accepted his checks -- even after insurance coverage had stopped.

"They basically stole our money," Mustard said. "And you can't tell me they didn't know our insurance policy was cancelled. When I found out, I emailed and never heard back. And there's no working phone number I can call."

Elliott Rust Companies, the company that owns Harbor Paper, could not be reached for comment.

Mustard said he doesn't owe much -- only about $5,000 for doctors appointments he scheduled before his coverage was meant to lapse.

But the Thomases owe about $30,000 in medical bills from last April and May, when they thoughtSusan Thomas' cancer treatments would be covered by insurance.

"Then we started getting these bills, and we had no idea what to do," Susan Thomas said.

"We actually quit looking, because at this point there's nothing we can do," Jeff Thomas added. "We don't open them, we just throw them away."

Jeff Thomas said there's no way they'll be able to pay the bills within their lifetime, and they'll likely file for medical bankruptcy soon. "If I was back to work, I would work out a payment plan," Jeff Thomas said. "But right now, we can't do that. There's no way. And I feel bad about it, I really do."

Susan Thomas has battled cancer four times. As of May, her condition was treatable through somewhat minor surgeries. But during her last appointment, she learned that the cancer had become more severe, and her doctor recommended a full hysterectomy.

"It was very fast-growing, and I was going to have the procedure in June," Susan Thomas said. "But then we lost our insurance and started getting all the bills, so I cancelled the procedure because we couldn't afford it."

In addition to her cancer, Susan Thomas also has plaque psoriasis -- a condition causing painful, itchy rashes -- and arthritis in her lower back. Before losing her insurance, she treated her arthritis with monthly shots, costing about $5,000 each. But she hasn't had access to this medication since June.

Susan Thomas is worried that her condition might have worsened over the past several months, so she doesn't like to think about her cancer very much.

"It was hard enough to go to the doctor the first time around because I just didn't want to know,"Susan Thomas said. "I felt like something was wrong, and I just didn't want to know."

Thankfully, Susan and Jeff Thomas recently found some insurance they can afford through the Affordable Care Act. Their children, a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old, are already covered by the state.

But the family would have been covered sooner if a federal program, available to recipients of Trade Act benefits hadn't expired at the end of 2013. The program would have covered about 70 percent of the former millworkers' insurance, said Trade Act Program Coordinator Rob Mills.

Harbor Paper employees didn't become eligible for Trade Act assistance until October. And while many of the former millworkers, including Jeff Thomas, are using the benefits to pay for school atGrays Harbor College, they missed the window for health care assistance -- which would only have covered them through the end of last year.

"The program was a huge benefit to a laid-off worker," Mills said. "These people were, in fact, eligible for some assistance. It's a shame because that group has really had a rough time."

And while Jeff Thomas said he's enjoying his studies at Grays Harbor College, he would much rather be working and supporting his family.

"I put in six job applications last week alone," Jeff Thomas said. "I like school, but none of us (former mill workers) who are going to school want to be there. It's not what I expected to do when I was 55 years old. I thought I would be working."

After he finishes school, Jeff Thomas hopes he and his wife can open their own bar and restaurant in Ocean Shores. After five plant closures, he said self-employment sounds like the best option -- especially with his business education and his wife's bartending experience.

The Harbor Paper debacle in particular has cost Jeff Thomas most of his trust of employers. He said he feels like the Harbor Paper management lied to him and the other employees.

"(Mill owner) Cesar Scolari, he came across as a family person, always saying he wanted us to be like a big family," Jeff Thomas said. "And then we basically figured out that he just lied to us on multiple occasions. Around April, they got us together and said they were hiring us back, and we came to find out that it was a lie."

It's unclear if Harbor Paper will be held accountable. The Employee Benefits Security Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor, investigates complaints made by employees about medical insurance. However, the agency couldn't comment on whether they've received any complaints or if there is an open investigation.

Harbor Paper employees can file a complaint with the Employment Benefits Security Administration by calling 1-866-444-3272.

The Thomases don't expect to get back any of the money they lost through their insurance problems -- they're just hoping to get Susan Thomas back to the doctor, and that Jeff Thomas will find work soon.

"We'll get by, we'll get through this somehow," Jeff Thomas said. "There's supposed to be an American dream around here somewhere, and we're still trying to find it."


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