The $3 million promised to U.S. Steel pensioners by the provincial Liberal government in October will finally begin to be disbursed January 1, according to the steelworkers' union.

The money will be going out two months after the six-month emergency fund was first announced on Oct. 21.

In October, a judge approved a plan for U.S. Steel Canada, formerly Stelco, to stop paying for prescription drug and other health benefits for people who used to work at the Hamilton and Nanticoke steel mills.

Days later, the provincial government stepped in announcing $3 million to help some 20,000 pensioners in Hamilton, Niagara and Haldimand-Norfolk for six months.

But six weeks after that announcement, the money has not begun to go out to the pensioners.

"It's been a lot more bureaucratic than I thought it would be," said Gary Howe, president of the United Steelworkers Union Local 1005.

"The government has the best intentions," Howe said. "It's something new and so they want to put rules in place. It just takes longer than people expect."

Howe said pensioners will be able to again use their benefits cards in January after they were cut off at the end of October.

A fund of $2.5 million will cover their prescription drugs through March 31, or whenever the money runs out.

The other $500,000 will be in a fund for financial emergencies, Howe said.

"We are actively working with the Province to finalize the process and eligibility for the Transition Fund and we are already processing urgent cases for compensation sent to us by retirees to be paid form the fund," said Barbara Walancik, an attorney who represents active and retired U.S. Steel/Stelco employees.

'Urgent and serious need'

The province said it has been spending the time since the announcement setting up the entirely new program.

The province has been working with U.S. Steel, the courts and pensioners to "develop the program's parameters" after the fund was announced, according to Kelsey Ingram, a spokeswoman for Minister of Finance Charles Sousa.

While all the rules are being sorted out, retirees with "urgent and serious need for a benefit formerly provided through the post-retirement benefit program" should be in touch with the union for help in the meantime, Ingram said.

The government has also been helping sign people under 65 up for the provincial Trillium drug benefits program, and those older than 65 for Ontario Drug Benefit Program, Ingram said.

Also in the meantime, Concession Pharmacy has offered retirees a break on the fees for drugs they've needed, even as specialized as injections for a man fighting cancer, Howe said.

"We are offering a special fee for them," said compounding pharmacist Maria Musitano at Concession Pharmacy. "Give them a better offer than they will get anywhere else. They're in a tough situation."

The province didn't move quickly enough for Andrea Horwath, leader of the provincial NDP and MPP for Hamilton Centre.

She called out the provincial government in Queen's Park Question Period two weeks ago.

"The problem is nobody really knows how this transition fund is being administered or how to access the help these pensioners desperately need," Horwath said.