A former employee and the loss of insurance

At the annual dinner of the United Media Guild, in St. Louis on Jan. 27, a special tribute was given to Robert Douglas, a former respected St. Louis Post-Dispatch newsroom aide who died in December.

When Douglas and other clerks were forced to take early retirement in 2008, they had health insurance provided by the Post. But they lost it when the paper, and its corporate owner, Lee Enterprises, canceled it for Guild retirees.

Douglas, 59, had diabetes and high blood pressure. He was ineligible for new health coverage because of pre-existing medical problems, and he was turned down by Medicaid. He was forced to borrow insulin from diabetic friends. He had complained of ill health; his daughter, Erica Douglas, found him dead in the kitchen of his home.

Erica, and Post employees who worked with Douglas, attributed his death partly to the company’s denying him the health care he needed. Post-Dispatch columnist Bill McClellan, wrote that Douglas, who had been the go-to-guy of the newsroom, “was a victim of our times — caught somewhere between serious health- care reform and the old paternalistic way of companies.”

Lee is trying to fend off a suit by the Guild for many Post retirees who had their health benefits terminated even though they say they were promised such benefits “for life” in company contracts with the Guild. The Mailers Union at the Post has also filed suit for 22 retirees whose health benefits were terminated last year.

Recently, a dozen former Post employees sued the paper for fraud, saying they were induced into retiring in 2007 with written promises of health care for life. They received the health care for two years and then the company cut them off. A spokeswoman for the Post, Tracy Rouch, said the paper believes there is no basis for the suit.