Children’s Hospital workers question administration’s priorities

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Celebrating plans to build a new $300 million facility that will achieve a “gold standard” in patient care, Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota threw a party outside its Minneapolis campus – a party Children’s own workers crashed.

As men and women in business suits filed into a VIP tent for the Oct. 30 celebration, they passed through a sea of purple-and-gold-clad members of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, handing out flyers slamming the hospital for jacking up their health insurance premiums as much as 30 percent in 2008.

A health-care provider, the workers said, should do better.

Paula Macchello, multi-employer director of the union formerly known as SEIU Local 113, said Children’s workers already are paying “up to 25 percent of their income for health insurance,” a figure the union expects to jump to 35 percent next year – that is, for those employees who can afford to keep the coverage.

“This employer that should be on the cutting edge of providing care for their employees and their community,” Macchello said. “They’re spending $300 million to build a new building, and yet they’re not taking care of their own people on the inside.”

No cooperation

More, Children’s has resisted the union’s suggestion that the two sides work cooperatively and with other hospitals and their employees on strategies to contain health-care costs.

In August, Children’s dropped out of a committee that brings together the five major metro-area hospitals and their employees so that the parties can share and compare cost-containment practices, according to SEIU member Lori Theim-Busch, a member of the committee.

“If different hospitals have different (health insurance) rates, then one is doing something different than the other,” Theim-Busch said. “Why can’t we share that information so we can all have the lower rates? It could be dramatic, the cost savings.”

Children’s, apparently, is not interested.

“The employer wouldn’t even sit down at the table with us to put our heads together to discuss ways to keep health care affordable,” Theim-Busch said. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that.”

In fact, employees and management at the hospital across the street from Children’s Minneapolis campus, Abbott Northwestern, model that very relationship.

Abbott Northwestern is part of Allina Hospitals and Clinics, which participates in a much-heralded “strategic alliance” with its workers. Together, the two sides have crafted medical plans that serve workers’ needs and keep costs down.

The difference, according to SEIU Minnesota President Julie Schnell, is staggering.

While Children’s employees face 30-percent increases in their insurance premiums next year, Allina employees face an increase of about 5 percent, Schnell said.

“There are significant ways we can be of service, that we can help,” she said. “Management refuses to talk.”

Morale in decline

That doesn’t sit well with employees like Letisa Tyus, a dietary aide at Children’s for the past eight years.

Tyus is the single mother of a high school athlete, who needs health insurance to participate in sports. She earns $16 per hour and pays $420 per month for family coverage. When that amount increases by 30 percent in January, Tyus will be stuck “between a rock and a hardship.”

“It is a disgrace that they could pay $300 million for a new building but won’t search for cheaper insurance for their employees,” Tyus said. “They want you to show up for work every day with a smile on your face, but what are you smiling for?”

Reprinted from The Union Advocate, the official newspaper of the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly. Used by permission. E-mail The Advocate at: advocate@stpaulunions.org

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