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It seems as if our fisheries across the nation are mired in crisis. And every time we turn around theres a new problem to deal with sometimes real, sometimes just some groups perception, but all need attention. With all the effort expended in looking after the well being of our fish stocks and the fisheries over the past 25 years, little attention has been given to the basic needs of fishermen and their families.
In the Northeast theres the groundfish collapse - particularly the cod resource which has been the mainstay of the North Atlantic fishery for centuries. And now, as a result, theres the battle over hard TACs and what steps will be taken to address excess fishing effort. If thats not bad enough, along comes a red tide and the shellfish industry is sent scrambling for disaster relief.
In the Chesapeake, the site of some of our nations oldest fisheries, oyster and crab are in trouble and all thats being suggested by government and scientists are curtailments on fishing instead of attacking the root pollution problems that are destroying this rich and important estuary. Curtailing fishing is easy, after all, attacking pollution takes some backbone. To the south, in the Gulf fisheries there are still reeling from hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the inept response by FEMA. Only now are appropriations being passed by Congress to help that areas fleet already beset with problems of high fuel prices and low priced imported farmed shrimp.
Here on the West Coast the affects of the BSAI crab rationalization are beginning to be felt with the loss of jobs and decline in crew shares. Worse yet, the North Pacific Council, seemingly oblivious to the what happened to the crab fishery is pushing full steam ahead with its plans for Gulf of Alaska groundfish rationalization.
To the south, along the Pacific Coast the battle is looming over the allocation of groundfish as those stocks begin to recover and the salmon fishery is operating at barely 10 percent because of the Klamath with NMFS refusing to declare a disaster and none of the agencies state or federal have demonstrated any leadership to address and fix the problems with that rivers parasite decimated fish populations.
Finally, out in the Western Pacific, the Bush Administration has decided to do some fish conservation, apparently in the mistaken belief its ecosystem-based management by closing off a vast area of the Northwest Hawaiian Island chain to a handful of artisanal commercial fishermen.
With all of these fishery problems confronting fishermen across the nation, the personal and family problems tend to get lost. But there is one problem that is personal and affects every fisherman and their family and thats the lack of available and affordable health care.
Fishing families from across the United States lack access to high quality, affordable health care coverage. Thats why the Commercial Fishermen of America (www.cfafish.org), the new national coalition that has formed to unite commercial fishermen - by addressing the issues that all fishermen commonly face - is making National Health Care for all Fishermen one of its first priorities.
The Commercial Fishermen of Americas (CFA) mission is to promote the common interest of the fishing industry, provide a forum to foster professional collaboration among fishermen, and educate Americans about the profession of commercial fishing. Health care for the industry was chosen as one of the first issues for CFA to work on. The lack of adequate health care for fishing men and women is a serious problem for all fishermen, whether fishing the Bering Sea or the Gulf of Maine. With the reauthorization of the Magnuson Stevens Act (MSA) it was the perfect time to reinstate the idea of a national health care program for all fishermen.
In a House bill, H.R. 4940, there is currently language - Section 4(e), the Fishing Industry Health Care Coverage Demonstration Program, to create a demonstration project for a national fishermens health program. This section was originally part of the American Fisheries Management & Marine Life Enhancement Act reauthorization authored by U.S. Representatives Barney Frank and John Tierney. The Commercial Fishermen of America is committed to make sure a provision to make health care available for all fishermen (but only if they want it) across the country is included in the final version of H.R. 5018, the American Fisheries Management and Marine Life Enhancement Act. The bill is sponsored by Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). The language for the Fishing Industry Health Care Coverage Demonstration Program is expected to be added to HR 5018 on the House Floor or in a Managers Amendment.
Specifically, the Fishing Industry Health Care Coverage Demonstration Program will authorize a program of grants to organizations for planning, implementation, and administration of qualifying health care coverage programs that provide benefits to individuals who are employed in the fishing industry or were working in the industry but were displaced by natural disasters, and the benefits will extend to these persons families.
This piece of legislation could be instrumental in the fight for affordable and accessible health care for every fisherman that wants it. If this legislation is passed, fishermen from around the country will have the opportunity to research and plan, implement, and run healthcare coverage programs in their communities.
On June 19th, the Senate passed its version of the Magnuson Reauthorization, S. 2012. This version, sponsored by Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) et al, includes important language, including provisions for disaster relief to commercial salmon fishermen hit hard by the Klamath disaster, but does not include the Health Care Demonstration Project language. Thats why it will be important to include the health care language in the House bill for consideration when the two bills go to conference.
Providing a system for health insurance for fishermen may seek like a lofty goal for CFA, particularly just starting out. Our federal government cant get it together to provide this and theyve been working on it for years, right? But there is already a very successful state program that provides health care to all Massachusetts fishermen who choose to sign up for it. Its called the Fishing Partnership Health Plan (FPHP) and its the product of a partnership between the Massachusetts Fishermens Partnership and Tufts Health Plan.
The Fishing Partnership Health Plan was started in 1997 and now has over two thousand members of the fishing community and their families receiving health care coverage through the plan. The plan has reduced the rate of uninsured fishing families from 43% to 13%. Studies of the plan have shown that this has been a very effective way of spending federal and state funding. Ninety percent of people covered by the FPHP did not have health coverage before joining the FPHP. The FPHP has saved $4.15 for every $1 in federal funding. Every $1 of federal funding has been matched by over $4 from the state of Massachusetts. Since the Fishing Partnership Health Plan has been such a success, it has been a huge boost to the public relations of the fishing industry in Massachusetts. Massachusetts may become the first state in the union to provide healthcare for all its citizens. This fishermen's initiative is frequently praised as proactive and creative solution to a large problem.
Health care for fishermen is not some new plan for socialized medicine. The United States began providing health care, or maintenance and cure as it was called then, for fishermen and merchant seamen aboard U.S. registered (documented) vessels in 1799. That year, President John Adams signed into law the act creating our marine hospital system that evolved over the years in the U.S. Public Health System (USPHS). Not only was a system of hospitals created but so contracts were also let to physicians in communities where there were no hospitals to treat fishermen and other U.S. seamen.
Many veteran fishermen are probably familiar with the USPHS hospitals in San Francisco and Seattle that provided them medical care. Indeed, the health care provided to fishermen was one of the few benefits they received of any kind from government care that was generally of good quality and necessary. The problem is it did not apply to family members unless they worked aboard the vessel and then it was limited to documented fishing vessels only.
In 1981, President Reagan as part of his domestic budget slashing ended the benefit cutting off fishermen and seamen access to USPHS care in the very hospitals that were established to provide for the nations commercial mariners nearly 200 years before. At that time, however, many fisheries were expanding and prospering and the loss of a public health care system did not seem like that big of deal. But now, with many fisheries or the price for many fish in decline, the dangers that continue and an aging fishing population, the health care situation for many fishermen has reached a crisis.
Following the closure of the USPHS hospitals and contract physician services to fishermen in 1981, PCFFA, as did other fishing associations across the country, contracted with various private companies to provide group health care coverage for its members. From the outset that proved difficult. First, many carriers did not know how to deal with a group of workers who neither have, nor are eligible for, workers compensation (the reason was the government health care program for fishermen predated state workers compensation laws and fishermen, as a result, were excluded from that coverage). This meant a carrier would have to pick up job-related injuries and illnesses or not offer coverage for that. Thus private health care was either very expensive or the coverage was minimal.
In the 25 years that have passed most of the group coverage has disappeared as increasingly companies would only take on individuals that continued to become more expensive. The situation is now that fishermen either rely on Medicare (its an aging population, remember), coverage a spouse may have from a shore based job, an expensive private plan if it can be found or, more likely, is simply going without.
Commercial Fishing has always been one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, and so, making it one of the hardest industries to get a health care plan for. According to the national census of fatal occupational injuries from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2004, 38 fishermen died, a rate of 86.4 per 100,000. The only professions with higher death rates were loggers (with a rate of 92.4 from 85 deaths, and aircraft pilots (with a rate of 92.4 from 109 deaths). Throughout the 1990s, the fatality rate for commercial fishermen in Alaska was 28 times that of the overall U.S. work-related fatality rate of 4.4 per 100,000 workers a year, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health. Drowning is the most common cause of death, but fishermen also suffer from fatal accidents in handling some of the heavy equipment that the fisheries employ.
The fishing profession is often erratic and some fishermen do not work as fishermen for the whole year due to different seasons, weather or regulations, and have no income during these times has made it harder for fishermen to find health care coverage. Another problem for some of the fleets is that many fisheries are highly transient, meaning a fisherman may need care in another state where they have no coverage. Finally, danger and an aging corps of individuals in the fleet has made carriers unwilling to provide group coverage or even individual coverage to many no matter what the premium the private insurer/health care provider sought to charge.
Commercial fishing operations are often single proprietorships with small crews that spend weeks at a time at sea. Because of this coupled with federal regulations, the price of gas, and the unreliable nature of the sea itself, fishing incomes are lower than the national average. For example, in 1996, 45 percent of fishing families in Massachusetts earned incomes less than twice the federal poverty level (source: the Massachusetts Fishermen Health Partnership). The current nature of the industry reduces the income that fishermen have available to pay for this expensive coverage. The rate of uninsured fishermen is three to four times greater than the national average. There are a number of reasons, each related to the type of work fishermen perform, that make it difficult for fishing families to access health care coverage. Fishermen struggle with market forces beyond their control, including fluctuations in fish stocks, restrictions on fishing opportunities, import competition, rising fuel costs, natural disasters, etc. The small business aspect, coupled with the rate of danger involved in commercial fishing, makes health care coverage very difficult for fishermen to afford for their families, let alone crew.
We can have high quality affordable health care coverage for every fishing family in the United States. Fishermen across the country need federal support in order to launch a program like the Fishermens Partnership Health Plan. If we work together we may just have the political clout necessary to pull this off. In order for the FPHP to have been as successful as it has been, the fishermen had to work together as a unit and put aside differences. It is that same unity that we will need in order to get a national health care program in place.
If we work together, fishermen from around the U.S. will have the same access to high quality, affordable health care coverage that thousands of Massachusetts fishermen and their family members have enjoyed since 1997.
The Commercial Fishermen of America is asking every U.S. fishing family to write a letter to fax to their congressional representatives to request that the Fishing Industry Health Care Coverage Demonstration Program language, H.R. 4940, Section 4(e), be included in the final version of the Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization
The Commercial Fishermen of America is acting to unify fishermens voices in state and national policy, foster professional collaboration, and work to address common problems that affect the industry. Commercial fishing leaders from coastal communities in Hawaii, California, North Carolina, Maine, Massachusetts, Florida, Maryland, Rhode Island, Louisiana, Washington and Alaska have been involved in the Steering Committee phase of the Commercial Fishermen of America. The Commercial Fishermen of America is going to have its first ever Board of Directors election November of 2006, at Fish Expo Seattle.
The Commercial Fishermen of America is so important because although commercial fishing is this countrys oldest industry, there has been no organization in existence that advocates only for commercial fishermen. The formation of this group comes at a time when concerns about our oceans are increasingly gaining nationwide attention, due in part to the release of two national commission reports that call for substantial reform to Americas ocean policy. The Commercial Fishermen of America will have an impact on that discussion nationally while at the same time making sure that the commercial fishing community is not lost in this country.
Sara Randall is the Program Coordinator for the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR). She works out of IFRs San Francisco offices and part of her assignment with IFR has been to staff the formation and incorporation of the Commercial Fishermen of America.
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