State Workers

Wellness an issue as Gov. Inslee, unions return to negotiating table on health care

Staff writerSeptember 26, 2013 

Jay Inslee


Negotiators for Gov. Jay Inslee and more than two-dozen labor unions are back at the bargaining table this month in a bid to settle outstanding health-care issues. After healthcare talks broke down in 2012 under the previous governor, the two sides agreed to contracts on pay while leaving health care alone for a year.

Insurance premium costs and the role of a wellness program are potentially big issues in this year’s talks, which affect the benefit package only for the plan year that starts Jan. 1, 2015. Wellness was among Inslee's campaign themes last year for slowing health care costs, reducing taxpayer burdens and avoiding tax hikes.

Going without a deal past June 30 leaves workers a bit at risk because terms of the health coverage are no longer protected by contract after July 1 next year, and the government would be freer to impose its own terms – such as higher premiums or out-of-pocket costs.

“(O)ne of the things Gov. Inslee is very interested in is incorporating a wellness program into this, which I think we’ll be able to get,” state budget director David Schumacher said before talks resumed last Friday. “Our hope is certainly to get it done by October.”

State worker unions have been urging their members to call the governor’s office to tell Inslee he should “stand with our values” and support a contract that protects workers against cost increases and that he should collaborate with workers if a wellness plan in required.

Inslee spokesman David Postman said the office had received about 300 calls – a modest number – as of late Wednesday. But volume might have been the most "with the same message being delivered in each call," Postman added.

The new talks are on a faster track than the previous ones, and Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees said both sides traded proposals during their first session on Friday. Welch said the two sides now plan to resume talks on Monday, Sept. 30.

Both parties want to finish up before Oct. 1 so the cost for the health care coverage can be part of Inslee’s supplemental budget request to the Legislature. The governor is expected to announce that supplemental 2013-15 budget plan in December, a few weeks after the next quarterly revenue forecast.

Both sides are pretty mum about terms of their talks – including what proposals each side gave the other. But worker premiums, limits on out-of-pocket costs in the state-run Uniform Health Plan option, and elements of a wellness plan are all said to be part of the discussions.

What is not clear is if Inslee – who won strong backing from public sector unions in last year’s campaign – would seek to hike the share of premiums paid by workers from the 15 percent level of today. Senate Republicans have argued in the past the worker share should be higher, and in 2010 then- governor Chris Gregoire’s team proposed raising rates from 12 percent to 26 percent.

The revived talks are limited to benefits to be provided in calendar year 2015. Previous contracts had a provision that let the terms of the 2011-13 contract continue for one year if no replacement contract was agreed to. Update: Under those terms, health premiums approved in July by the Public Employees Benefits Board are going up on average by 1.8 percent, or up $2 per month to $79 for individuals in the Uniform Medical Plan.

The Washington Federation of State Employees is leading the coalition of more than two dozen unions on the health care negotiation, because it represents about two-thirds of workers in general government agencies and classified college jobs workers who are affected by the agreements.

Typically the terms of any agreement with the coalition becomes the way the rest of state government and colleges’ more than 100,000 employees overall are treated.

The federation’s leaders have said they are willing to support a wellness program if Inslee includes workers as equal partners in designing the plan. Welch said a plan worked out by King County was successful because it was worked out with employees.

In an email to its members this week the federation identified three “values” that are important to the coalition – including the wellness partnership.

Welch said the union also wants to secure “a fair premium share” that takes into account pay sacrifices during the Great Recession and getting “protections against skyrocketing co-pays, deductibles and other out-of-pocket costs” in the Uniform Medical Plan that is the most popular option for workers.

Dave Schiel, president of the Washington Public Employees Union, said the unions at the table are very unified on those subjects. Update: But a 2012 report for King County on its Healthy Incentives program showed $10.8 million in healthcare costs were shifted from the employer to workers during the program's first five years through 2011. 

“I’m open-minded about wellness but what I don’t want to see is wellness as an opportunity for things to get worse and for costs to get passed on’’ to workers, Schiel said. “That’s why it is important that any wellness program that is developed is in partnership with the unions.’’

Last year, Gregoire’s team proposed a fixed amount of money for wellness incentives. But the coalition of unions rejected it in part because it meant the incentive would shrink if too many workers participated by joining a gym, for example.

The parties did eventually agree to pay terms, including an end to 3 percent cuts in pay and hours for most general-government workers and a new step increase of 2.5 percent for workers at the highest pay rung. The state’s improving revenue forecast makes it more likely that most workers also can get 1 percent cost of living adjustments next July.

Schumacher said he doubted they would forge a deal that included a well-formed wellness plan by Oct. 1, “but we want to make sure we have the opportunity to incorporate a wellness program into this contract.’’

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