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Still no contract deal in place for Regina nurses

After a ninth bargaining session last Friday, nurses at Regina Hospital in Hastings are still no closer to a contract deal with the hospital’s new owner, Allina Health.

“This is the most difficult negotiation I’ve been through in 21 years at Regina,” said Jane Traynor, Minnesota Nurses Association negotiator, Regina RN and bargaining unit chair.

Nurses and Allina have been meeting since last April to try to reach an agreement on a new three-year contract for union nurses. The last contract was originally set to expire last June, but was extended to Dec. 31. Since then, Regina has continued to pay nurses at current rates and nurses continue to accrue vacation and sick time, Traynor said. They also still have health insurance, but are limited to one Allina insurance plan.

Union negotiators and Allina have been unable to settle two particular pieces of the contract that deal with health insurance options and pensions. Allina’s contract offer includes a corporate health insurance plan and a 401(k) program, but no pension.

Regina president Ty Erickson wrote in a letter Jan. 17 that the health plan being offered by Allina provides more choices and better plans at lower prices than previous plans, but nurses disagree.

Although the payment up-front isn’t as much, the insurance being offered has a higher deductible, especially for nurses who want to insure their families, said Linda Held, a nurse who has worked at Regina for the past three years. She worked at Twin Cities area facilities for 25 years before coming to Regina.

“At other (Allina) facilities, they have insurance plans that MNA has negotiated that provide better coverage, lower copays, lower deductibles,” Traynor said.

And while Allina has given nurses at its other Twin Cities facilities the option of choosing the MNA negotiated plan or the corporate plan, the MNA plan isn’t being offered to Regina nurses.

“They’re offering us one package,” Held said, “where in the metro you have more options, and we should be able to have those options.”

When it comes to the pension plan, Allina isn’t offering the MNA negotiated pension plan at Regina. Erickson offered an explanation in his letter.

“The union is aware that there are significant problems with the multi-employer pension and the health benefits they negotiated into contracts at other hospitals. They are not sustainable. Adding additional members to these two very broken benefit plans would be poor stewardship and would add to the significant problems they present. … As of Jan. 1, 2013, the multi-employer pension was underfunded by more than $312 million. This means there are not enough assets in the plan to pay for the accrued benefits and administrative expenses.”

Of the health insurance nurses are asking for, Erickson said this:

“The health plans sought by the union are incredibly expensive, and will only become more unsustainable as Healthcare Reform is fully implemented – especially the ‘Cadillac’ tax. With the proposed plan options, employees receive an outstanding benefit at a sustainable cost. These plans are the same plans that are provided to more than 14,000 other Allina Health employees. This includes more than 450 other Allina Health employees on the Regina campus.”

The “Cadillac Tax” Erickson refers to is a piece of the federal Affordable Care Act that would impose a 40 percent excise tax on the value of health insurance benefits that exceed a certain threshold. Currently, the threshold has been set at $10,200 for individuals and $27,500 for families. The tax is scheduled to go into effect in 2018.

Lynn Morehead, who has been a nurse at Regina for 42 years, said that the pension plan would not directly benefit her, but she’s concerned because of the effect not including it could have on other nurses here.

“It will help repay nurses at Regina so when I need someone, there will be someone to take care of me,” she said.

On Friday, MNA negotiators attempted to compromise by proposing changes to the implementation dates of the pension. They also backed off on some other items, Traynor said.

“We’re trying to move things toward a settlement,” she said.

“They really didn’t respond to our proposal.”

Prior to the most recent bargaining session, Erickson wrote that Allina doesn’t want to add to existing problems in the pension plan.

“Allina Health has been trying to work with the union to address the fundamental cost structure problems in both the pension and the health plans since at least 2007,” he wrote. “We are committed to providing competitive benefits. But we cannot ignore the inherent problems and long-term consequences with the union’s proposal. And, we are not interested in locking ourselves into another contract that compounds these problems with a union that has not been willing to work with us to address them.”

Since Allina didn’t accept the union’s modified proposal, some of the items the nurses eased away from on Friday may return to the table in future bargaining sessions.

Seeking equal treatment

For many of the nurses, the big question is why Allina won’t offer Regina nurses the same benefits offered at the other Allina facilities in the seven-county area, including three hospitals that are either smaller or of comparable size to Regina.

“They all have MNA pensions and they all have MNA insurance,” Held said.

“It’s making us feel like we’re second-rate, and yet our care is the same.”

Morehead noted that since Allina took over the hospital, nurses there have to operate according to all the new standards, rules and regulations that come with Allina Health, and they want to be treated like an Allina hospital.

“We are not being treated like the rest of the facilities,” she said.

Another big concern is that, without equal benefits, nurses won’t have much reason to keep working in Hastings.

“Our nurses feel that if we don’t get the pension and everything else, our nurses are going to be leaving here,” Morehead said.

“Why should we stay at Regina when we can go 20 minutes (to River Falls, Wis.,) within the system and get the benefits?” Held asked.

Erickson wrote that the offer Allina has made would be fair and competitive.

“We are committed to offering nurses a deal that is fair and competitive so that we can continue to attract and retain exceptional caregivers. I’m confident that the hospital’s proposal will accomplish that. The proposal being offered features a pay increase over current wages, as well as better benefits and a lower cost than what was provided under independent ownership.”

Held is also worried about what the Regina contract will mean for nurses at other facilities once their contracts have to be re-negotiated.

“Whatever we do is going to impact their future negotiations,” she said.

Nurses in other communities have showed they’re paying attention. Some have come to Hastings already to join in informational pickets here. On Feb. 11, another informational picket is scheduled at Abbott Northwestern Hospital to show support for Regina.

“This affects all of us, so make no mistake, we will stand by each other,” said ANW Bargaining Unit Chair Diane Johnson. “We will make every nurse, every resource available to our colleagues in Hastings to stand up against corporate health care’s impact on our communities.”

Continuing care

Although the ongoing negotiations are leaving nurses feeling frustrated, insulted and stressed, they’re still doing their best to provide the best care to their patients.

“This is a huge stress to all of us and yet we’re doing our jobs to the best of our ability,” Held said.

“I just hope the community really realizes that we’re there for them. We’re working the holidays, we’re working the weekends, we’re working 24-7. … Even when we’re off the clock we still care.”

Both sides of the negotiating table are looking forward to settling the contract.

“I think we can all agree that we’d like nothing better than to settle this contract and focus all our efforts on what we do best – providing exceptional care to the Hastings community,” Erickson wrote. At this time, Allina and MNA nurses have not set a date for a future bargaining session.

“There will be a resolution, we’re just not sure when,” Traynor said.