A controversial bill that puts low-wage, part time workers into the health exchange created by Obamacare won passage by the narrowest of margins in the state Senate this week. Senate Bill 5905 is assumed to save the state $128 million over two years and is a key piece of the Republican-authored Senate’s no-new-taxes budget.
The vote on Monday was 25-to-23 and it needed the votes of two members of the Senate Democratic Caucus – Sens. Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam and Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens – to pass. Republican Sen. Pam Roach of Auburn crossed over to vote with minority Democrats against. UPDATE: Gov. Jay Inslee told reporters Tuesday the bill is premature to pass in 2013 but deserves to be “on the table” for longer-term discussion of its merits.
The bill, which is sponsored by Senate Republicans’ chief budget author Andy Hill of Redmond, targets part time workers who are often lower paid. In the K-12 system there are many bus drivers, cooks and para-educators that work short shifts and struggle to pay for coverage under plans available through the Public Employees’ Benefits Board.
In a floor speech, Hargrove said the measure is needed to balance the budget and that his amendment to the bill assures that workers could negotiate through collective bargaining to receive their health care through PEBB.
“We see it as something that potentially can benefit our part time employees,’’ Hargrove said, adding: “We may have more work to do on this bill.’’.
But the Washington Federation of State Employees is blasting the legislation for creating what it calls a two-tiered set of benefits. The federation singled out Roach and conservative Democratic Sen. Brian Hatfield of Raymond for what it described as leading the fight against the bill.
The measure now goes to the House, where majority Democrats have been cool to the idea – and it comes with less than mandate from the Senate.
Under their plan workers would get a $2 per hour bonus in pay that could be used to help defray their share of premium costs for policies purchased through the exchanges. Workers with low incomes could qualify for subsidies under Obamacare, which could help address affordability issues raised previously by Sen. Hobbs and the PSE union.
Worker friendly lawmakers such as Democratic Sen. Karen Fraser of Thurston County called the bill “premature” because the precise benefits available under the exchanges are still unknown. She said there is a chance that some workers could not afford coverage and plunge their families into poverty.
Fraser called it “an abandonment of many state employees” who rely on state-paid benefits for health and dental coverage. Fraser said she has heard from part time, non-union state employees who worry about losing dental and health care.
Democratic Sen. Steve Conway of Tacoma contended that the scope of collective bargaining was being narrowed by the bill. He said benefit options will be cut and dried in the exchanges and that true bargaining would allow negotiations for dental benefits.
“I don’t think there is a person on the floor here who would want to work without dental benefits. That is basically what we are doing with this bill,’’ he said.
This bill is clearly tied up in the end game of budget negotiations. The regular, 105-day legislative session is scheduled to end Sunday, although it is considered a long shot that the Legislature can land on that dime.
UPDATE: My reporting partner Jordan Schrader stopped in at the governor’s bill signing, where the subject came up. Inslee said – when specifically asked about the proposal to move government workers onto the exchanges – that the idea is “premature for us to launch this year. But I don’t think we should take it off the table for discussion.’’
The Democratic governor declined to say whether the proposal fit with the intent of the Affordable Care Act, which he voted for as a congressman in 2010.
“I think the exchanges have every promise of being successful. Our state is moving diligently to implement it,” Inslee said. “And I think this is a possibility at some point that the state may want to consider. But there is quite a bit of work that needs to be done before we can really launch this – including discussions with the state employees themselves …”
Inslee said that work would involve looking at costs and determining ”if there really are savings (for the state) and if there really would be equivalent coverage available” for the part time workers.
“I’ll be urging us to not move on that this year,’’ he said.