3,000 HealthPartners workers prepared to strike over their own health care

Bloomington-based health care provider and insurer HealthPartners employs 26,000 people. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

More than 1,800 nurses and other medical care workers at HealthPartners could vote to strike next week if they don’t reach a new contract agreement by Friday at midnight. The workers say they are standing firm against a company effort to cut employee health benefits.

HealthPartners, which has 26,000 employees and more than $7 billion in revenue, has earned a reputation for offering some of the most generous health benefits of any company in Minnesota. Their current plan for employees represented by Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, is unheard of at other large organizations: no premiums, no deductibles and small co-pays for medical visits and prescription drugs.

The plan the Bloomington-based nonprofit is proposing continues no monthly premiums and low co-pays for single people, but it increases costs for married people, including a $100 monthly fee for a spouse.

HealthPartners is also proposing limiting the number of in-network providers on its basic plan to just four locations.

Angela Knutson, a nurse at HealthPartners’ specialty center in St. Paul and a union leader, says she doesn’t want to make any concessions on her health care. And she said the 150 workers she talks to as a union leader feel just as strongly

“I bet 99% of people will say if you touch our benefits, we will strike,” Knutson said.

HealthPartners, one of the state’s largest health providers with 90-plus clinics and hospitals, declined to comment on its health insurance proposals for its SEIU-represented employees as well as its insurance plans for its executives and other employees.

“We’re committed to reaching a contract agreement that’s fair to our team members, the patients we serve, and the community,” HealthPartners spokeswoman Ashley Burt wrote in an email.

Angela Knutson is a HealthPartners nurse and union leader with SEIU Healthcare Minnesota. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The fight over health benefits — at a health care company no less — illustrates the continued resonance of the issue playing out in workplaces and on the campaign trail, where Democratic presidential candidates have all pledged to increase access and cut out-of-pocket costs.

The stand-off over health insurance is a familiar scene for Minnesota’s nurses and health care workers. More than 4,000 nurses went on strike — twice — at five Allina hospitals across the Twin Cities in 2016, also over health benefits.

Allina stayed open by hiring 1,500 replacement nurses. It was an expensive play, costing the organization $149 million, more than its operating income.

But it ultimately paid off. Allina’s nurses agreed to move from their union-only health insurance onto Allina’s less generous corporate health plan. At the time, a labor expert told MPR News that health providers across the country would likely try to follow Allina’s lead, and that Allina got the upper hand by remaining open with the expensive replacement workers.

It’s unclear if HealthPartners will be able to follow the same playbook, however.

SEIU Healthcare Minnesota represents workers in more than 80 different occupations at HealthPartners’ facilities, including nurses, lab technicians and dental hygienists — basically anyone who cares for patients and isn’t a doctor. Quickly finding replacement workers would be challenging.

Administrative, custodial and security jobs are also unionized at HealthPartners and not required to cross a picket line, meaning the real number of striking workers could reach higher than 3,000.

As negotiations have proceeded this week, SEIU representatives say HealthPartners has not budged from its proposed hikes in employees’ health care costs. That tough posture is consistent with recent cost cutting.

Over the past several months, HealthPartners eliminated some 450 jobs by closing its 30 pharmacies, ending its home health care service and cutting jobs in information services and technology.

HealthPartners even cut its annual Christmas bonus to workers: a taxable $25 Target gift card, which was traditionally accompanied by a thank you note from the CEO.

Management-labor relations weren’t helped when the Star Tribune reported in January  that HealthPartners’ 2018 revenue was up 6% and its new CEO Andrea Walsh received a 52% raise, up to $2 million a year. (It turns out much of the raise was due to her being promoted in 2017*.)

“I had people reaching out to me left and right saying ‘They’re not taking from us, especially if they can give this to the CEO,” Knutson said.

Workers are adamant on protecting their benefits because for many, including Knutson, it’s why they chose to work at HealthPartners to begin with.

Knutson has complicated health problems stemming from having ovarian cancer as a teenager and a rare chromosome disorder. Multiple surgeries left her dependent on expensive medication.

At her previous employer, a nursing home in the Twin Cities, Knutson said she was responsible for 20% of her health care costs. She racked up tens of thousands of dollars in medical debt, which led her to defer medical care and ration prescriptions.

“Because I owed so much money to the company, I had to pay a significant down payment towards my outstanding balance before they would let me be seen in their clinics,” Knuston said.

It was only after she took a job at HealthPartners nine years ago that she’s been able to pay off her debt.

Knutson said that without the health benefits, she never would have been able to buy a home. “I would have never been able to put together a savings and retirement account.”

Although the company’s offer would still give the workers an above average plan, premium care is worth fighting for, said Phillip Cryan, executive vice president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota.

“As a union, we support much broader changes to our healthcare system that would make sure that every last person in this country has access to high quality and affordable health care,” Cryan said. “And so, if we want to pursue that goal, we need to start with making sure that any group of workers who can establish high quality and affordable coverage like our HealthPartners members, who have fought for and won over many years of collective bargaining, are able to keep it.”

If they don’t reach an agreement by Friday at midnight, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota will vote to strike February 6, which would trigger a week-long strike later in the month.

*Due to an editing error, this story misstated the year Andrea Walsh was promoted. She became CEO and president in 2017.