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For Workers, Medical Bills Add to Pain as Firms Fail

The Wall Street Journal - Ianthe Jeanne Dugan
Published: December 06, 2008

When Archway & Mother's Cookie Co. told employees in an October letter it would "go out of business immediately," some workers frantically sought medical care while they believed their insurance would still cover the costs.

In Ashland, Ohio, a pregnant employee had labor induced before her due date. Another worker bought a $6,000 insulin pump for her diabetic daughter. "I called my doctor at home and said, 'I need to have my gallbladder removed this weekend,'" recalls Janet Esbenshade, a 37-year-old mother of two who lost her job packing cookies.

Jeff Austen, former Archway oven operator in Ohio, is running a committee 'The Burnt Cookies' to share information among ex-employees. He said he has accumulated $2,000 in medical bills.

Those employees and many others ended up saddled with huge medical bills anyway. Archway was self-insured -- and when it filed for bankruptcy on Oct. 6, there wasn't enough money in its coffers to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of outstanding health-care claims along with all its other debts.

Workers weren't eligible for Cobra, a federal act that gives certain laid-off employees the right to temporarily continue health-care coverage at group rates. That's because Cobra doesn't apply when a company terminates its insurance plan.

The Archway saga reflects the human toll of the credit crunch, as companies increasingly shut down because they can't get financing. Some are abruptly eliminating insurance and leaving laid-off workers with bills for medical expenses incurred before the shutdowns, a trend that is exacerbating health and money problems for tens of thousands of people nationwide.

* * *

Now that Archway is bankrupt, all its assets will be divided among creditors, including those with health claims. Archway bankruptcy documents list liabilities of $143 million and assets of $92 million.

This week, the bankruptcy court approved a $30 million sale of Archway's assets to snack-maker Lance Inc. of Charlotte, N.C. Separately, Kellogg Co. bought Archway's Mother's Cake & Cookie Co. unit for $12.1 million.

* * *

Lance says it plans to reopen the bakery in Ashland, a small city between Columbus and Cleveland where Archway was one of the biggest employers, with about 300 workers. Some could be rehired. But that does nothing to help reverse the havoc caused by the sudden loss of insurance.

A growing number of people are facing this issue as their employers shut down. The number of liquidations under Chapter 7 of the bankruptcy code surged 62% to 13,002 in this year's first half compared with a year earlier. Under Chapter 11, another 3,470 companies filed in that period, but many are liquidating rather than going through the more-traditional reorganization. At companies that have filed for bankruptcy protection, the number of "mass extended layoffs" -- more than 50 people unemployed for at least a month -- doubled in this year's third quarter, the U.S. Department of Labor says.

The government doesn't track how many people wind up uninsured. When companies file for reorganization under bankruptcy rules, they often continue their insurance coverage. Companies that liquidate usually terminate these benefits.

In May, Jevic Transportation, a New Jersey trucking company owned by buyout firm Sun Capital Partners Inc., told employees in a letter that it was shutting down and terminating insurance. "Continuation of these plans via Cobra is not an option since Jevic no longer provides any group health plan to any employee," a human resources official wrote.

"My whole world ended when I opened that letter," says Elizabeth Vaughn of Bordentown, N.J.

Her husband, D.S. "Sam" Vaughn, a 63-year-old Jevic driver, put off chemotherapy treatments when the company closed, she said. He later went to a government-subsidized clinic, Ms. Vaughn says, to get medicine for heart disease. She said he was ashamed.

"After he was laid off," she says, "he'd just sit at the kitchen table saying, 'I'm sorry.'"

Mr. Vaughn died over the summer of pneumonia. His obituary in the local paper, written by his wife, said: "He worked for 15 years for Jevic Transportation until they closed their doors and broke his heart."

* * *
In Columbus, Ga., Edward Griffin, 45, was called into the service bay of a Bill Heard Chevrolet in September, along with hundreds of colleagues. An executive boomed over a loudspeaker that the national chain of car dealers, which had survived the Great Depression, was closing. About 2,700 people were laid off in all, and their insurance was terminated.

Mr. Griffin, a finance manager, was in a panic. He had bought a $60,000 BMW the day before. He had four children, including a son with autism, and a mortgage on a 5,000-square-foot house. His wife, Michelle, needed a hysterectomy. She had put it off as she tried to fill big orders for a clothing-manufacturing company she owned.

She went to the hospital the next day for surgery. "I wasn't out of the recovery room for 20 minutes when we heard that we had no insurance," says Ms. Griffin.

Now, the Griffins say they have $40,000 in medical bills, are two months behind on the mortgage and are selling the BMW. Mr. Griffin took a job selling cars, earning about $3,000 per month -- a quarter of his former pay. Ms. Griffin's company went under. Their children are "scared to death," she says.

* * *
In October, when Starla Darling heard Archway was closing, the 27-year-old blending-table operator was due to deliver her second child in a few days. Fearful of losing her insurance coverage, she persuaded her midwife to help induce labor that day.

"I was scared," Ms. Darling says. "I didn't have any other options."

Doctors performed a cesarean section. Ms. Darling recovered, and discovered she was responsible for about $20,000 in medical costs.

Since she was technically on maternity leave, she couldn't collect unemployment benefits. Her disability check, however, wasn't arriving because Archway was out of business. She fell behind on bills and soon received a disconnect notice from the electric company and an eviction notice from her landlord. She says the local high school helped pay the family's rent out of a fund it raised for Archway workers.

Jeffrey Austen, who lost his $17.53-an-hour job as an oven operator, is running a committee to share information among ex-employees, called "The Burnt Cookies." He says he accumulated about $2,000 in medical bills in preparation for shoulder surgery. Now, he is collecting unemployment checks of $298 a week. Insurance, he says, would cost $637 a month.

Mr. Austen, 50, filed a suit in a Delaware federal bankruptcy court accusing Archway of violating the federal Worker Adjustment Retraining Notification law, which requires 60 days notice of a layoff. His lawyers, Jack Raisner and René S. Roupinian, of Outten & Golden LLP in New York, are seeking back pay for all workers.

* * *

Catterton bought Archway from Parmalat Dairy and Bakery Inc. in 2005. A person close to the private-equity firm said it tried to make the firm more profitable but had unforeseen challenges and a credit crunch that finally forced it to pull the plug.

Until the company shut down, Archway had deducted health contributions from employees' paychecks. The contributions, along with the employers' share, go into a pool that funded Archway's insurance plan. Blue Cross and Blue Shield was the administrator of the plan, so employees and doctors would file claims with the insurance firm, which would determine if they were valid and then pay them. Archway would then repay the insurer. Typically, this process could take a couple months to complete.

The bankruptcy created chaos among laid-off workers whose claims are only now working their way through the system for visits as far back as September -- and some earlier.

Wendy Carter, a 41-year-old former packer, had a hysterectomy in mid-September, and says she accrued $15,000 in medical bills that weren't paid. She also was on disability, so she couldn't collect unemployment insurance. She says she recently wound up applying to the Salvation Army to get $102 to help pay the rent.

Similarly, Nadine Deck says she was out on disability with a chronic breathing disorder. When Archway shut down, she stopped receiving disability checks. So she turned to unemployment and received checks over four weeks. But the government stopped paying, saying she couldn't collect while on disability. The government now wants its $900 back, she says.

"The government is bailing out banks, but who's going to bail out little companies like Archway and help us?" asks Ms. Deck, 55, who worked for 23 years at the cookie company as a packer and machine operator.

* * *

Some employees say they have had to cut back on costly prescription drugs. Ms. Esbenshade, the cookie packer who had her gallbladder removed, says she didn't buy her six-year-old daughter's asthma medicine after Archway closed, because she lacked $100 to pay for it. They have since received a state-issued medical card to help cover the cost of the medicine.

Darlene Miller, a 57-year-old packer, no longer has insurance to cover $300 a month for medications for high blood pressure, thyroid problems and a heart condition. So she is cutting each pill in half.

"My doctor is going to chew me out when I tell him, but I didn't have a choice," Ms. Miller says. "I suddenly have no insurance."

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