Seattle’s Group Health Cooperative says it won’t budge on plans that exclude about 95 percent of its members from voting on a proposed acquisition by California’s Kaiser Permanente.
Officials with the co-op said this week they are upholding a longstanding tradition by leaving the key decision to about 27,000 members who registered to vote before the deal with Kaiser Permanente was announced last week. That’s about 4.5 percent of the plan’s 600,000 members in Washington and Northern Idaho.
“Our trustees and the founders were not supportive of ‘one issue voters’ or special interest groups who had not already made the commitment to take part in the cooperative process,” Susan Byington, chairwoman of the Group Health Cooperative Board, said in a statement.
Officials announced Dec. 4 that Group Health had agreed to be acquired by Kaiser Permanente, potentially forming a new region of the giant health care and insurance provider, which has 10.3 million members in eight states and Washington, D.C.
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The deal must be approved by voting members before it goes to state and federal regulators. A special meeting to consider the vote is set for Jan. 30, but under the co-op’s bylaws, members must be registered to vote at least 60 days before such meetings.
Group Health officials announced the deal 57 days in advance.
That move rankled many longtime members, including Leslie Snodgrass, 68, a retired Seattle art teacher who has been with Group Health since 1975.
“It’s totally out of faith with the idea of a co-op,” said Snodgrass. “Even as a kid, you wanted to play fair, but this was not fair in any way.”
Snodgrass, who doesn’t use the Internet, said she received no communication via mail about the proposed deal from Group Health. At first, she thought she wasn’t registered to vote, but then found out that she was.
“I’m not necessarily against the buyout,” she said. “But I’m suspicious of the date of the announcement, blocking voting by other members.”
David Foster, 75, a retired bioengineering professor at the University of Washington, has been with Group Health since 1980. He’s not registered to vote and said he was “absolutely floored” to learn of the agreement with Kaiser.
“My comfort level with Group Health has sort of been getting pushed,” said Foster, who spends half the year in Seattle and half in Palm Springs, Calif. “I think that they’re starting to behave more like a corporation than a cooperative.”
Others, however, say Group Health is justified in allowing only the most engaged, informed members to participate in a decision about the future of the organization.
Tom Brewer, 79, a retired civil-service worker from Southworth, Kitsap County, said he’s been a voting member of Group Health since the early 1980s. He participates regularly in the governance of the plan and says the opportunity has been available to anyone.
“The message is out there, constantly: You need to become a voting member,” he said. “People don’t want to take the time until it’s something they take an interest in.”
Group Health has worked to make participation easier, he added. Until 2004, the organization founded in 1947 required registration as a voting member 120 days before participation.
Brewer said he’ll support the acquisition because it allows two nonprofits with similar values to merge, strengthening both. Without the plan, he fears Group Health would face a difficult future.
But Jack Mercer, 67, the retired owner of a seafood-processing business, thinks the deal and the timing are suspicious. His dad, Lyle Mercer, was a Group Health board member for 24 years.
“It’s just a helluva bad way for a co-op that claims to be owned and operated by its members to have the board all of a sudden present its members with a fait accompli,” said Mercer.
The voting begins Jan. 30, with plans to announce the results March 12.