St. Peter’s Hospital cuts benefits, and draws community ire
by Paul Pickett
Last December 20, several leading local elected officials joined a candlelight vigil outside Providence St. Peter Hospital, but this was no holiday celebration. Olympia Mayor Stephen Buxbaum, Lacey City Council members Cynthia Pratt and Andy Ryder, and County Commissioner Sandra Romero joined employees of St Peter at an event called by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to protest the treatment of St. Peter workers.
What lead these hospital employees – workers who clean the rooms, provide food, manage paperwork – to call on elected officials for help? And why did the officials join them? The path leading to this diverse group and their candles begins the summer before.
Kristi is a secretary at St. Peter. She works in the Progressive Care Unit, where recovering cardiac patients are monitored closely. “We started bargaining in June” she says. “Providence said ‘let’s get it done by July’. But they said nothing about health care. We wondered why they were in a hurry. Then they announced a new health insurance program in August.”
That new health insurance program is the heart of the current dispute. Although the details are complex, the bottom line is this: In 2012, employees had the choice of four plans. The “core” Preferred Provider plan had no premiums, deductibles of $250 individual and $750 family, and maximum out-of-pocket of $1,500 individual and $4,500 family. Other plans required a premium and had more generous terms.
But for 2013, Providence eliminated this plan and another HMO plan, forcing 70% of employees to find new plans. A new core plan was offered: a Health Savings Account with deductibles of $1,500 individual and $3,000 family, and maximum out-of-pocket of $3,000 individual and $6,000 family.
SEIU did the math. They predicted that employees as a whole will pay over $300,000 out of pocket, representing a 47% increase. The median St. Peter employee represented by SEIU earns $31,000 per year. The deductible of the core plan represents 10% or more of most employees’ paychecks.
St. Peter employees were outraged. Providence imposed the new program unilaterally and refused to bargain over the changes. “The new plans are not economical for the average family. People are ready to fight for health care”, says Kristi. “I’m still paying for dental work and a surgery that my kids had last year. It’s a snowball effect.”
Mila Harden works in the emergency room. “With the new plan, I’ve had to cut back on leisure spending and do less shopping,” she explains. I have a chronic condition that needs regular labwork and doctor visits. I paid $750 for my first visit.” She talks about her coworkers. “A lot of people can’t afford the additional cost. They are barely making ends meet. Sometimes they don’t even have a paycheck, it all goes to health care.”
SEIU has been pushing back. In October, they interrupted a meeting of the St. Peter executive board to deliver a pile of “forced” health care enrollment forms. They asked elected officials in Thurston County to sign a letter asking Providence to bargain fairly. Then in December they organized the candlelight vigil.
Elected officials in Thurston County have taken notice of the workers’ concerns. Lacey City Councilmember Pratt explains, “Many workers live here in Lacey. St. Peter is the largest private employer. Benefits are significant, and when your wages are already low, it starts a downward spiral.”
Lacey City Councilman Ryder concurs. “As a business owner who provides health care to my workers, it’s a fairness issue. I wouldn’t ask my employees to pay more for my service than my other customers. And it sets the tone for other employers, encouraging more benefit cuts.” Ryder continues, “It’s also an economic issue. If employees spend more on their health care, they’ll spend less in the community.”
Other elected officials have lent their support. “I signed the letter asking St. Peter to bargain fairly” says County Commissioner Romero. “This is the health provider for the community. I don’t want to interject into bargaining, but I also don’t want to see standards slipping.”
Tumwater Mayor Pete Kmet also signed the letter. “St. Peter’s Hospital is a big part of the local economy,” he says. “If they aren’t bargaining fairly, it sets a precedent for how other businesses can treat their workers.”
What has been St. Peter’s response to these concerns? They’ve been holding meetings with elected officials to explain their position. Ryder attended one and says, “It was closed door, invitation only. They limited the agenda to two plans. They wouldn’t discuss negotiations or the concerns of SEIU. They seem to believe in one-way communication.” (When I contacted Providence St. Peter Hospital and asked for an interview, I was told no one was available. However, I was offered one of these sessions to explain their plans. However it would be too late for the printing deadline. If St. Peter provides significant new information, OP&L will publish it in a future issue.)
What is making St. Peter treat their employees this way? Julie Popper of SEIU points out that the President and CEO of Providence makes $3.1 million in total compensation, and the Vice-president in charge of St. Peter makes over $800,000. “They are making lots of money. They are opening new clinics all over the place.”
Pratt observes “St. Peter has gone corporate. Dollars are the bottom line.”
I asked Pratt and Ryder how the community could support the workers.
“They should write to the Providence management” says Pratt. “Support events like the vigil.” Ryder suggests that people get in touch with SEIU and offer support. “Sign a petition. Write the local papers. Help get the word out. They are paying attention to what the community thinks.”
As Mila Harden put it, “I don’t know why they are doing this to employees. We are working for a health care provider. They should provide their workers good health care.” ◙
SEIU has provided an on-line petition at http://seiu1199nw.seiu.org/page/s/providence_HC_support.