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PUBLISHED: 5:59 PM on Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Kennedy's illness could stall health coverage for fishing families
An innovative new plan to provide health care coverage for fishing families could stall due to the sudden illness of Senator Ted Kennedy.

The Massachusetts senator was championing the Commercial Fishing Industry Health Care Coverage Act through Congress this session. Kennedy was diagnosed last week with a malignant brain tumor and is scheduled to begin medical treatments. But hopes remain high, both for his recovery and for passage of the health care plan.

"It has had no opposition," said Senator Ted Stevens, co-sponsor of the bi-partisan plan. "It really is a great bill and I think everyone realizes these people need some assistance."

Senator Stevens called the Act "a new approach" to providing access to health care coverage to anyone who performs fisheries related work.

It would require the Secretary of Health and Human Services (★★S) to fund $50 million in health care grants for commercial fishing states or organizations. The money would jump start the costs for getting a health care coverage plan up and running. It also would be used to offset individual health care costs, and provide group insurance coverage for more fishing families. Coverage would extend to boat owners, captains, and crew, as well as others performing fishing industry-related work, such as shore-side support company employees, and their families.

"No subsidies are involved. It's a partnership," Senator Stevens said in a phone conversation. "The legislation would authorize grants to fishing states or organizations that would be required to provide matching funds of $1 for every $2 in federal funding."

Surveys around the country show that fishing families are much more likely to be uninsured than other Americans. The seasonal and dangerous nature of their profession makes affordable coverage hard to find. Most fishermen are self-employed or work for small businesses, and high priced insurance costs are simply out of reach.

Options for both health care delivery and insurance are even more limited for Alaskans, according to a survey by the United Fishermen of Alaska (UFA). It revealed that thousands of Alaska fishermen are more likely to work and live in communities without a hospital, while fewer insurance companies offer individual or small business medical coverage in Alaska than in any other state.

"This legislation will allow fishermen to band together to purchase group coverage, which will give them an opportunity to get the health care they need," he said.

On a personal note, Stevens said Ted Kennedy has visited Alaska to determine the adequacy of health care in rural regions.

"In 1969 we took a trip through Native country and from that grew a longstanding relationship. He's been up there several times with me. Politics are politics, but Ted and I have been friends for a long time."

Arctic protections

As global warming makes Arctic waters more welcoming to fish stocks, Congress has taken steps to put protections in place. Congress passed a resolution last week asking the State Department to begin developing U.S. policy for the region. That will set the stage for international fisheries management agreements at the United Nations.

"There is very little fishing now in the Arctic,' said Sen. Ted Stevens. "Norway has some fisheries, and the bulk of the entry to the Arctic Ocean is in their area. "We do not have any commercial fishing on our side, and to the best of my knowledge, neither do the Russians."

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council already has imposed a moratorium on any Arctic fishing until management regimes are in place. Sen. Stevens said the Council will take a lead in developing policy for the Arctic Ocean.

"They are already developing ones for the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea, so it naturally follows for them to be involved," he said.

Jim Ayers, director of the conservation group Oceana and praised the Alaska delegation and Senator Stevens especially "for leading the U.S. and the world in protecting the Arctic in the face of climate change and rapid industrialization."

Dangerous jobs update

The latest federal labor figures for 2006 show that Alaska regained the #1 rank for having the highest rate of work-related deaths in the nation.

Alaska had lost the "worst" title for four years after 2001, with Wyoming and Montana jockeying for first place. But in 2006 Alaska had 45 workplace deaths, up from 29 fatalities in 2005. Commercial fishing still ranked as the nation's most hazardous occupation from 2001 through 2006, with an average fatality rate of 115 deaths per 100,000 fishermen.

But Alaska waters are not the most deadly. That distinction goes to the West Coast states of California, Oregon and Washington whose combined fishing fatalities totaled 238 deaths, more than double the rate of Alaska and the nation. The deadliest catch comes from the Dungeness crab fishery, with 17 on the job deaths.

The results of a report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), showed a lack of use of life rafts and survival suits by West Coast fishermen. Conversely, emergency preparedness and training is credited with boosting survival rates significantly among Alaska fishermen.

"Alaska has had the biggest improvement in fishing safety than any other place in the country," said Jerry Dzugan, director of the Sitka-based Alaska Marine Safety Education Association. "We've gone done from almost 40 fatalities a year in the early 1980's to an average now of about 11 in the past five years. So that's a huge drop."

The NIOSH report said the fishing industry and government agencies can learn a lot from initiatives taken in Alaska, and that safety inspections, training and good emergency gear can reduce deaths in West Coast fisheries and nationwide.


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