Workers don’t seem to be a priority

Special to The OlympianFebruary 20, 2013 

Providence St. Peter Hospital has been in our community as long as we can remember. St. Peter births our babies, sets our children’s broken bones, heals our families, and plays a huge role in our community. Each of us can relate to the high quality of care we and our families and friends have received at St. Pete’s.

When it was founded more than 125 years ago, the Sisters of Providence were driven by principles of charity, caring for the poor and vulnerable. Mother Joseph, who opened the first hospital for the Sisters of Providence, said, “My sisters, whatever concerns the poor is always our affair.”

Sadly, Sisters of Providence views do not seem to be as high a priority at St. Peter today. I’m sure the Sisters never envisioned the hospital they founded to care for all would become part of a health care behemoth with more than $239 million in profits. And I believe they would be shocked to hear that the hospital is cutting health benefits to the very caregivers who make it successful – the men and women who work there.

One wonders what Mother Joseph would say to a company that pays its CEO $3.1 million, yet cuts employee health care. Or what she’d say about employees who make an average of about $31,000 a year having to spend 10 percent of their incomes to pay to access health care at the very facilities where they work.

It’s hard to think of our community’s longest-serving hospital as anything but a good actor in the South Sound. And yet, the landscape of health care has shifted, and the sisters have been replaced by a corporate CEO. While it’s still providing top-notch care, St. Peter is also providing profit to a Renton-based corporation. Although it still enjoys the same special tax-free status it once held, its leadership appears to be much more focused on the bottom line.

This became quite apparent on Jan. 1, when Providence unilaterally implemented a new employee health care system that eliminated the comprehensive health insurance plan and replaced it with a risky, expensive high-deductible catastrophic plan. And this was done outside the collective-bargaining process.

A study by the Segal Co., a nationally recognized employee-benefits consultant, estimated the change would cost St. Peter’s employees collectively 47 percent more in out-of-pocket health care costs. In effect, it took away affordable health care access from the employees – our community members who make the hospital so successful.

St. Peter, as the second-largest employer in our region and a health care employer, sets the bar in many ways for wages and benefits in our community. If the state or county governments tried to unilaterally implement a new health insurance system, and do it outside the collective-bargaining laws, many folks in our community would be up in arms.

These high-deductible catastrophic plans erode our community standard for good employer-provided health care. And Providence is a health care employer – its employees put their health on the line every day to care for us. Working in a hospital, these employees are exposed every day to patients’ illnesses. They put their own bodies at risk lifting patients. Working around sick people and in stressful situations, they need top-notch access to care, not a health care plan that economically discourages employees from getting the care they need.

Providence needs to do better for our community. It needs to return to the role that it plays in our community – caring for all of us. We value St. Peter as a community resource and quality health care provider. As such, we give it special tax status to recognize the importance of the care it gives. In return, this corporation should live up to its role and continue to provide quality care for all – including its employees. It’s a sad day when its employees have to fight just to get access to affordable health care.

Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, represents the 22nd Legislative District.

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