Commentary

Health care workers with poor health care

Fairview Health System needs to treat its employees with compassion

When health care workers need to worry about their own ability to be covered by health insurance, something is wrong with the system. When the health care system involved has Lutheran roots, it’s time for Lutherans to see what the problem is.

Eleven hospitals in the Fairview Health System are currently engaged in a negotiation process with the Service Employees International Union Local 113. The bargaining unit is comprised of nursing assistants, dietary workers, environmental service workers, and other health care support workers. These are some of the more vulnerable workers within the Fairview system.

Tom Carpenter is one of these employees. His wife and two kids are also on the plan. With the proposed changes, not only will he pay a higher maximum amount for health care, he will pay higher premiums, as well.

Tom’s son has severe asthma, which means that his family ends up in the emergency room several times a year. This new plan scares him and his wife because they can’t anticipate all of their health care costs and are afraid of ending up in serious medical debt.

As a result of the changes, Tom and his wife are making the switch to his wife’s insurance next year — an option not everyone is lucky enough to have.

Managers at Fairview Hospital System have argued that they are offering more choices for the workers — more than 50 options, in fact. And they say most employees will pay lower premiums with this plan. But that’s not the case for employees with family coverage. Workers who have a spouse and two or more children, or workers who are single with three or more kids, will actually pay higher premiums as well. And the multiple-choice plan is very complex, a tactic other hospital systems have used to hide the cost-shifting of health care onto the employee.

Practically speaking, the increase in premiums and per-visit expenses means that more hospital employees will go longer before seeking care. They will more often be at work not knowing whether they are contagious or not. Is it in the community’s best interest to have someone who is ill — but can’t afford to see a doctor — preparing food or cleaning surgical equipment?

This health care plan, if implemented, will lower costs for Fairview Health Services, no doubt. But it does so by increasing out-of-pocket and health premium costs to the employees, especially those with children.

These workers are among the lowest paid in the organization. The shift in health coverage will likely drop some of the employees into the ranks of the working poor. More Fairview Health Service employees will need to access governmentally funded health care through the State of Minnesota.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s social statement on economic justice is titled “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All.” It calls upon employers “to compensate workers in a manner sufficient for living in dignity and make provision for adequate health benefits.”
Do these actions of Fairview Health System, given its strong historical Lutheran connection, adequately serve the health needs of these workers, the well-being of the larger community, or the clearly-expressed intention of the Lutheran Church?

As Twin Cities Lutherans, we clearly have higher expectations for our health-care institutions then these proposals would indicate.

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Bob Hulteen is a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis and is the Communications Director for Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), the nation’s largest faith-based organization working on workers’ issues. The IWJ Web site (www.iwj.org/ pdf/hcethic_small2.pdf) includes resource materials concerning health care institutions and the right of workers to bargain collectively.