Greater Cincinnati employers – including large companies and local governments – are getting millions of taxpayer dollars to help pay for health care benefits for early retirees, people who are often at risk of losing health care until they qualify for Medicare.

Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, Kroger Co., Western and Southern Life Insurance Company and Cincinnati Bell are among the local companies who are using taxpayer dollars to subsidize health insurance benefits for their employees.

The $5 billion Early Retirement Reinsurance Program is a little-known provision of last year’s health care reform law that was designed to encourage companies to provide health care to early retirees, which are people who retire in their 50s or early 60s before Medicare benefits kick in at age 65. Many people between 50 and 64 have health issues that can make it difficult to get affordable coverage on their own.

The program is supposed to fill that coverage gap by encouraging employers to extend coverage for this group of people until a provision in the the health law kicks in that would ban insurers from denying coverage for pre-existing health conditions.

Critics, however, call it an unnecessary bailout for local governments or a corporate “slush fund,” particularly for the large Fortune 500 companies that are benefiting.

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