Hundreds of workers at Atlantic City's Trump Taj Mahal casino still have no health insurance six months after their employer ended health care coverage.
A survey of 500 workers released Tuesday by Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union finds 44 percent have not been able to find health insurance on their own. An additional 23 percent rely on government subsidies to pay for health insurance.
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A bankruptcy judge in October allowed Trump Entertainment Resorts to cancel health and pension coverage for workers. The company gave employees a stipend toward the cost of buying insurance under the Affordable Care Act, but even with that, many say they have been unable to afford insurance.
Paul Smith, a longtime cook at the casino, needs surgeries on his neck, shoulder and back but can't afford them. He moved in with a friend because he couldn't afford to pay rent any longer.
"I have to pay cash for my doctor visits, which are expensive: $155 for a visit," he said. "I have to pick and choose which medicines I buy: Do I take my heart medication or my pain pills that get me through the day so I can work? Every day it gets worse."
Smith fears he will end up addicted to pain medication because he has put off surgeries for so long.
"Eighteen months ago, I became a grandfather," said Smith. "If I don't get surgery soon, I'll be crippled. I won't be able to hold my granddaughter or even lift her up. That's my greatest fear."
Health care has always been the top priority among union members in Atlantic City; over the past 11 years, workers have seen their pay rate increase by only 80 cents an hour because they opted to keep their health insurance benefits intact.
The in-person survey also found at least 70 percent of respondents say they feel depressed numerous times a week.
The union has been locked in a battle for nearly a year with billionaire Carl Icahn, who is acquiring Trump Entertainment Resorts from bankruptcy court. Union president Bob McDevitt said Icahn, the casino's main lender, has taken hundreds of millions of dollars out of it in loan payments. Icahn said he does not yet own the casino and called the health care fund unreasonable and unaffordable based on the current depressed gambling market in Atlantic City.
"While I no doubt believe that morale among employees at the Taj is low, this union has already caused three other hotels in Atlantic City to close and now they are doing everything they can to destroy the Taj," Icahn said. "If they succeed, won't their members be even more depressed without jobs? What does their unscientific, self-serving, propaganda-driven survey say about that?"
McDevitt said the report shows "that for the men and women of the Taj Mahal, the lack of health insurance is a crisis."
The union is appealing the court-ordered termination of health and pension benefits for Taj Mahal workers. Icahn has said if an appeals court reinstates the benefits, he will cut off financing for it, and it will close.
Smith said the $32 a week in company stipends designed to help workers buy insurance on their own "is a joke." He said work rule changes the court allowed, including the elimination of paid lunch breaks, cost him $18,000 a year in lost income.
Smith is looking into joining a health care plan some friends recently signed up for if he can afford the premiums.
"Icahn says he fights for the little guy," Smith said. "I am the little guy. And he's fighting me."
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC