WASHINGTON - When President Obama pushed his health-care overhaul plan through Congress, he counted labor unions among his strongest supporters.
But some unions leaders have grown frustrated and angry about what they say are unexpected consequences of the new law - problems that they say could jeopardize the health benefits offered to millions of their members.
The issue could create a political headache next year for Democrats facing reelection if disgruntled union members believe the Obama administration and Congress aren't working to fix the problem.
"It makes an untruth out of what the president said, that if you like your insurance, you could keep it," said Joe Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. "That is not going to be true for millions of workers now."
The problem lies in the unique multiemployer health plans that cover unionized workers in retail, construction, transportation, and other industries with seasonal or temporary employment. Known as Taft-Hartley plans, they are jointly administered by unions and smaller employers that pool resources to offer more than 20 million workers and family members continuous coverage, even during times of unemployment.
The union plans were already more costly to run than traditional single-employer health plans. The Affordable Care Act has added to that cost - for the unions' plans and others - by requiring health plans to cover dependents up to age 26, eliminate annual or lifetime coverage limits, and extend coverage to people with preexisting conditions.
"We're concerned that employers will be increasingly tempted to drop coverage through our plans and let our members fend for themselves on the health exchanges," said David Treanor, director of health-care initiatives at the Operating Engineers union.
Workers seeking coverage in the state-based marketplaces, known as exchanges, can qualify for subsidies, determined by a sliding scale based on income. By contrast, the new law does not allow workers in the union plans to receive similar subsidies.
Bob Laszewski, a health-care industry consultant, said the real fear among unions is that "a lot of these labor contracts are very expensive and now employers are going to have an alternative to very expensive labor health benefits."
"If the workers can get benefits that are as good through Obamacare in the exchanges, then why do you need the union?" Laszewski said. "In my mind, what the unions are fearing is that workers for the first time can get very good health benefits for a subsidized cost someplace other than the employer."
However, Laszewski said it was unlikely employers would drop the union plans immediately because they are subject to ongoing collective bargaining agreements.