NEWPORT, Ore. (AP) -- Tony Kennedy could not sign up for health insurance with his employer. Like many in the fishing industry, he's an independent contractor.
So he, his wife and four children have been covered under an individual health policy with high deductibles.
''We ended up paying for medical bills on top of premiums,'' said his wife, Connie Kennedy. ''It was basically like another mortgage. It just got to be too much.''
But if everything goes to plan, the Kennedys and other fishing families in Oregon, Washington and Alaska will have another choice starting in February.
It's called the West Coast Commercial Fishing Community Health Insurance Plan operated by Regence Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Oregon.
Getting Regence to agree to offer the plan is the culmination of three years of work by the Women's Coalition for Pacific Fisheries, the Oregon State University Sea Grant and several other groups.
''We have been hearing for years that there was a need for health insurance,'' said Flaxen Conway, outreach specialist at the OSU Sea Grant, an extension service focused on marine research.
A survey done by the Sea Grant in 1998 found that almost one-third of fishing families are uninsured -- three times the state average.
Conway said one of the challenges in getting the program set up was educating health insurance companies about the fishing industry.
Stephanie Ashmore, a spokeswoman for Regence, said the OSU survey data was also important in getting the company to sign on because it demonstrated the extent of the need.
The insurer has several other so-called association plans involving very small business such as sole proprietors, she said.
One of the main advantages of a group policy as opposed to an individual plan is that no medical questions are asked of people covered in a group plan. Also, the Regence insurance will cover more than many individual insurance policies.
''I already know the coverage will be quite a bit better,'' Kennedy said.
The plan faces at least two more obstacles: state approval and the requirement that the fisheries coalition sign up 800 families or individuals by the end of November.
To qualify, workers must earn a majority of their income from the fishing industry.
The scheduled start date for coverage is Feb. 1, 2001. Ashmore said the typical target number for an association plan is 1,000, but Regence hopes to get above that figure in the next few years.
The WCPF looked to the East Coast for guidance.
Fishermen in Massachusetts successfully organized an association plan several years ago.
''The exciting part to me is that we have a huge population of hardworking people who have not had access to quality healthcare,'' said Blaine Calhoun, a 34-year veteran of the health insurance industry who helped put together the plan. ''And now they do.''
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