Hospital workers strike at St. Peters

About 300 unionized Providence St. Peter Hospital workers hit the picket line Monday morning, kicking off a five-day strike to call attention to changes to employee health care that the union and its members say is not affordable.

Providence officials said Monday that the hospital is open and fully staffed, and that the strike will not impact patient care.

“Doctors, registered nurses and other employees are ready to provide the highest quality of care whenever patients need us,” the hospital said in a statement.

The strike began about 6 a.m. Monday and is set to end about 10 a.m. Saturday.

A cross-section of workers — dietary, housekeeping and admitting staff — gathered mostly at Ensign Road and Lilly Road, while others stood at hospital entrances, or walked down Ensign Road to Martin Way. They held signs while passing drivers honked in support of the strike.

The workers are represented by the Service Employees International Union, 1199NW.

At issue are three health plans members could choose from: a health savings account, a health reimbursement account and a more traditional health care plan offered through Group Health.

Union members are frustrated because the two account-based plans — the HSA and the HRA — replace a more traditional health care plan, and members were accustomed to having a choice of two Group Health plans that have been merged.

Debra Tipton, 51, who has worked in housekeeping at the hospital for four years, emphasized Monday that the new health care plans, which took effect in January, are too expensive. Tipton earns $13.82 per hour, taking home about $760 every two weeks, she said.

Tipton said she chose the Group Health plan. Her health insurance premiums have gone up, although she didn’t know the exact dollar amounts.

Tipton, a thyroid cancer survivor, said she needs affordable health care because of the regular checkups required to determine whether her cancer has returned.

“The hospital is a vital asset to the community, but what they’re offering us is a disservice to our community,” added Bob Wilson, a member of the union negotiating team and a surgical technologist at the hospital since 2005. Wilson, 48, said he earns $24 per hour.

Because of the changes to health care, Wilson said he and others have skipped going to the doctor to save money.

“They don’t have to implement this,” he said.

If employees select one of the account-based plans, which typically have higher deductible and out-of-pocket expenses, they can receive funding from Providence to the tune of $700 — or $1,400 for a family — that can be used for medical expenses. The money also can be rolled over year-to-year for the employee and family to use.

Wilson said he doesn’t have to provide health care for his family, so he chose the employee HSA.

He picked the plan because he can regularly contribute money to the account from his check — money that can be used to pay the deductible — and the account is portable, Wilson said, meaning he can take it with him if he leaves the hospital.

To receive the seed money, employees must participate in wellness screenings, such as for high cholesterol, high blood pressure or diabetes.

The screenings are free and the results are confidential. Employees also must identify a primary care provider as part of the process.

Providence released a fact sheet about the offer made to the union.

Here are some of those details:

• This contract offer in general, and our health plan options in particular, are very competitive with other regional health care providers. The offer also includes salary increases at a time when many workers have been living with wage freezes for several years.

• For employees with chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure, medications are covered at no cost to the employee. Wellness visits and screenings do not require a deductible.

• Premiums for employees and families have decreased. The net deductible has increased from $250 to $450 for an individual and from $750 to $900 for a family.

“We think this is a very competitive offer that comes at a time when many workers have had wage freezes, furloughs or even layoffs,” Providence St. Peter vice president of human resources Susan Meenk said in a statement.

The union also has countered with its own fact sheet, pointing out that Providence Health and Services, the parent company to Providence St. Peter, generated $8.7 billion in revenue, according to audited financial statements for fiscal year 2011.

A community gathering of local officials is expected to join the striking workers at 5 p.m. today.