Allina, nurses were so close, yet far from deal

Published 10:44 am Monday, September 12, 2016

By Jeremy Olson

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Bleary-eyed from 22 hours of contract talks, leaders for Allina Health and its union hospital nurses appeared to be just one big issue away from agreement when they halted negotiations at 6 a.m. on Sept. 3.

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Forty-eight hours later the nurses hit the picket lines.

Now, as the strike enters its second week, the question is: Will they still be that close when they return to bargaining after having slept, restrategized and traded bitter accusations for days?

“We would really like to know the answer to that ourselves,” said Rick Fuentes, a spokesman for the Minnesota Nurses Association, which represents 4,800 nurses at five Allina hospitals in the Twin Cities.

No further talks have been scheduled, and when the strike started Allina became obliged to pay most of its 1,500 replacement nurses for two weeks. Neither side has even reached out to restart talks, which have been stalled for weeks in a stubborn disagreement over health insurance costs.

The closest the two sides have come to negotiating was an appearance Friday night on Twin Cities public television by union executive director Rose Roach and Allina chief executive Penny Wheeler.

Wheeler blamed the current “conundrum” on the union’s effort to preserve old-style, low-deductible health insurance plans which, she said, permit runaway spending.

“We’re trying to transform health care. … We cannot do that by clinging to old ways and old plans,” Wheeler said.

Roach countered that nurses’ health spending reflects their high risk of on-the-job illness and injury.

“This constant sort of tone that nurses somehow are irresponsible and they don’t use health care properly … is really pretty insulting,” she said.

So close …

The rhetoric belies how close the two sides have come after eight months and 18 negotiating sessions.

On Sept. 3, they at least tentatively agreed to further discussions of a plan that would free up charge nurses to provide more support to bedside nurses rather than being responsible for their own patients. Their dueling offers both called for security personnel in emergency departments at all times, a nod to nurses’ concerns about hospital violence. And, importantly, they agreed on a transition that would move nurses from four union health plans to Allina’s three corporate plans, which had been the key sticking point.

The union, however, didn’t want to lose all bargaining authority over the cost and quality of the nurses’ health insurance. So its negotiators requested that a hand-picked actuary be able to review the Allina plans each year to make sure their benefit values don’t decline by 5 percent or more without the union’s consent.

“Why shouldn’t we get to know what we’re buying?” Roach explained.

Allina acknowledged the concern, offering to have its own actuary guarantee that one of its health plans wouldn’t change in benefit value by 5 percent during the three-year nursing contract, but management didn’t want to extend that authority to the union.