Tar Heel Tattler - December 2006

Union trips up member's trip to India for surgery
By Irwin Speizer

This is a story about Carl Garrett’s gallbladder — a tale that might have meandered in obscurity from the forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the plains of India and back if not for the griping of a Pittsburgh-based labor union. It is a tale of sickness and health, of globalization and collective bargaining. And like many Southern yarns, it is a tale of a lost cause.

Garrett fixes and maintains machines at Canton-based Blue Ridge Paper Products Inc., which is 45% owned by its workers. Saddled with rising health-care costs, the company last year began exploring ways to cut expenses. Someone saw a television report on medical tourists — U.S. citizens who travel to Third World countries to get procedures done for up to 80% less than they’d pay here — and management started looking into it. Garrett, who needed gallbladder surgery, volunteered to be the guinea pig in exchange for a share of the savings.

By September, Garrett had his bags packed for New Delhi. That’s when the United Steelworkers union, which represents Blue Ridge’s blue-collar employees, put the kibosh on the deal, complaining that workers should not have to travel halfway around the globe to get medical care. To the union, the deal was a change in the company’s medical benefits — one that could be made only through collective bargaining.

The dispute escalated when Union President Leo W. Gerard sent a letter to leaders in the U.S. Senate and House. “Our members, along with thousands of unrepresented workers, are now being confronted with proposals to literally export themselves to have certain ‘expensive’ medical procedures provided in India.”

Blue Ridge quickly backed down. Garrett unpacked his bags, his adventure in medical tourism hijacked by the union that represents him. “He was disappointed,” says Stan Johnson, the union’s regional director in Birmingham, Ala. “But had he gone over there and had something substantially wrong occur, it could have turned into a tragedy.”

The union won this battle, but it might not win its war against company-sponsored medical tourism. Raleigh-based IndUShealth, the outfit that arranged Garrett’s surgery, says the controversy had its phones ringing with prospects wanting to know more, including several large manufacturers. “We probably got three to four times the publicity than if Carl had just gone over there and come back,” IndUShealth President Tom Keesling says. “In a funny way, it has been good for us.”