PUBLISHED: 5:42 PM on Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Affordable health care coverage for fishing families
Senators Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski two weeks ago introduced the Commercial Fishing Industry Health Care Coverage Act to Congress. The bi-partisan bill was co-sponsored by Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts; Congressman Don Young is introducing the same bill in the U.S. House.

The measure would require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to fund $50 million in matching grants for fishing states or organizations. The money would help jump start costs for getting health care coverage plans up and running based on each state's needs. The money also would be used to offset individual health care costs, and provide group insurance coverage for more fishing families.

"There are more people involved in the fishing industry in Alaska than any other industry, and yet they do not have a comprehensive plan. Some businesses are big enough to have health insurance plans but the smaller ones, particularly the individual fishermen, don't in most cases. This legislation addresses the problem by allowing them to band together to purchase group coverage," Sen. Stevens said in an interview.

Coverage would extend to boat owners, captains, and crew, as well as other individuals performing fishing industry-related work, such as shore-side support employees and their families.

The grants would provide up to $200,000 per year for up to two years for the states to plan and develop a health care coverage program. Programs would then be able to apply for start up grants for up to $2 million annually for two years.

Programs that received administration grants for the full five years of eligibility could apply for up to $3 million annually for up to five years, "if the state they serve experiences insufficient fish stocks or depressed markets that jeopardize the ability of the program to continue providing affordable health care coverage" the bill says.

Although everyone is clamoring for better health care coverage for all Americans, Senator Stevens said that the proposed law for fishermen is likely to draw some fire.

"It's going to be a controversial bill because there are a lot of people who don't believe there should be a subsidy. But fishing states would be required to match the funding for $1 for every $2 in federal money. So it would be a partnership with the states," Sen. Stevens said.

Surveys done in different parts of the country show fishing families are significantly more likely to be uninsured than other Americans. Reasonably priced health insurance is difficult for fishermen to obtain because of the seasonal and dangerous nature of their profession. Also, most fishermen are self-employed or work for small businesses and simply can't afford it.

A study last year by the United Fishermen of Alaska revealed that the situation is especially tough in the Great Land, where thousands of fishermen work and live in communities without a hospital. Fewer private insurance companies offer individual or small business medical coverage in Alaska than in any other state.

Fishing nets fuel electricity - It comes as a shock to realize that roughly one ton of old fishing nets equals enough electricity to power one home for 25 days!

Massachusetts fishermen have launched a Nets to Energy Program to take advantage of that fact. The project is a partnership among fishing communities, NOAA Fisheries, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and a company called Covanta Holding Corporation, which develops and operates large scale energy-from-waste and renewable energy projects. Using high heat, plastic from fishing nets and other materials can be converted back into their petroleum base, and burned as fuel.

According to the Gloucester Daily News, the program will provide an appropriate means of disposal without cost to the city. It also aims to prevent gear from being abandoned or dumped at sea.

Starting this week fishermen can drop off old fishing nets and pots at the local fish pier, said the Gloucester Daily News. It will be transported to Covanta's energy-from-waste facility in Haverhill, which provides electricity for 40,000 homes.

(For more information on the Nets to Energy project contact Jim Caulkett at 978-282-3012 or Kathy Middleton at 978-281-9785.)

Covanta has extended its marine debris removal reach to the west coast and has a plant in Oregon, said Bob King, marine debris project coordinator for the Marine Conservation Alliance.

The MCA is making headway with a recycler in Seattle, King said, that converts plastics back into oil.

"It's a relatively simple distillation process and is cost effective with oil currently at nearly $100 a barrel. They're looking at the feasibility of an Alaska project. The high costs and shipping issues remain problematic, but it may yet be an option," King said.

The Dutch Harbor landfill alone contains millions of pounds of old netting, which accumulates at 1,000 tons each year.

Fish reprieve? Gov. Sarah Palin has come to the rescue of Alaska's fisheries by asking the Legislature to cover most of the $7.5 million in federal budget cuts to various management and research programs. Laws for the Sea reported that $5.2 million would go to the state's Commercial Fisheries Division.