About 1,700 nurses and other healthcare workers began a five-day strike today against Seattle-based Group Health Cooperative -- one of the nation's oldest HMOs -- over the cost of their own health benefits.
Picket lines went up at 18 Group Health offices and clinics around Puget Sound, from Everett to Olympia, said union spokesman Carter Wright. The members of the Service Employees International Union Local 1199 planned to continue the strike through Friday.
Talks began in the summer of 2003 and broke off Wednesday after two months of participation by a federal mediator. No further talks were scheduled.
Healthcare coverage is at the center of the contract dispute between the 57-year-old co-op, which is the second largest consumer-governed HMO nationwide, and the nurses, medical assistants, social workers, therapists and other workers.
Group Health wants employees to pay more for their health benefits. Workers covered by the union contract now get benefits with no premiums or deductibles, and $5 copays for office visits and prescriptions.
In advance of the walkout, scheduled to end Friday at midnight, Group Health transferred an undisclosed number of maternity patients, rescheduled outpatient surgery and postponed back-to-school physical exams.
Together with Group Health Options, a wholly owned subsidiary, the co-op handles healthcare for more than 540,000 people in Washington state and northern Idaho.
The labor dispute involves 23 Puget Sound-area clinics.
Union leaders agreed in advance not to strike at Group Health Eastside Hospital in Redmond, the group's only general inpatient hospital. They also did not strike at clinics and medical centers in Idaho and Eastern Washington.
Group Health's Puget Sound clinics will continue to operate with nonstriking workers and replacements hired from agencies, chief operating officer Scott Armstrong said.
Group Health has proposed increasing co-payments to $15, imposing premiums and adopting a sliding scale of deductibles, 1% of base pay for individual workers; 2% for a worker and a spouse, domestic partner or children; and 3% for a worker, spouse or domestic partner and children.
A worker making $30,000 a year would pay $75 a month in premiums.
Group Health also wants to levy a $100 monthly charge on workers who get coverage for spouses who are eligible for health benefits somewhere else but elect coverage through Group Health instead.
Union members now receive benefits without any premiums or deductibles, plus $5 copays for office visits and prescriptions.
Union members say they're willing to contribute more but not as much as Group Health has sought, adding that some employees could not health coverage under the cooperative's proposal.
Union members range from nurses making $70,000 a year to custodians making $24,000.
The last strike against Group Health was a 39-day walkout in 1989.