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 talks broke down in 2012 under former Gov. Chris Gregoire, 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.
Both parties want to finish up before Tuesday 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.
State budget director David Schumacher said he doubts the sides will forge a deal that includes a well-formed wellness plan by Tuesday, “but we want to make sure we have the opportunity to incorporate a wellness program into this contract.”
Wellness was among Inslee’s campaign themes last year for slowing health-care costs, reducing taxpayer burdens and avoiding tax hikes.
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.
This time around, state worker unions have been urging their members to call the governor’s office to tell Inslee he should “stand with our values.” Unions are asking Inslee to support a contract that protects workers against cost increases and to collaborate with workers if a wellness plan is required.
Inslee spokesman David Postman said the office had received about 300 calls as of late Wednesday.
It is not clear if Inslee – who won strong backing from public sector unions in last year’s campaign – will seek to hike the share of premiums paid by workers from the current 15 percent. Senate Republicans have argued in the past the worker share should be higher, and in 2010 Gregoire’s team proposed raising rates from 12 percent to 26 percent.
Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, said the union wants to secure “a fair premium share” that takes into account pay sacrifices during the Great Recession and get “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.
The new talks are on a faster track than the previous ones, and Welch said the two sides plan to resume negotiations Monday.
Going without a deal past June 30 would leave workers at risk because terms of 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.Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 firstname.lastname@example.org www.theolympian.com/politicsblog