With the nurses strike reaching a third week, comments made by Allina’s CEO Dr. Penny Wheeler about the health insurance they want to take from the nurses has become a focal point of the battle. Speaking on television, radio and earlier this week in a full-page ad in the Star Tribune, Dr. Wheeler has been referring to one of the Allina core plans as an important example of high road collaboration with one of their Unions. We, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, are that Union, and we want to set the record straight about how we created the Allina First plan and why Allina’s current management, under CEO Dr. Penny Wheeler, cannot be trusted when it comes to health insurance.
In 2008, under a previous management at Allina, our Union and Allina were bargaining under a formal labor-management collaboration called the Strategic Alliance. The Alliance had emerged from years of battles over insurance, starting in 2003 when SEIU members at Allina who made as little as $11 per hour were charged close to $600 per month for family insurance. In 2008, we made a major step forward for our members by negotiating the Allina First plan, which is what Dr. Wheeler keeps referencing. We called it the Allina First plan because members were expected to use the Allina network first before seeking other providers. We also convinced Allina management that they could save millions of dollars in prescription drug prices by eliminating all co-pays from generic drugs. The result of this collaboration was better coverage for our members, with lower premiums and lower out-of-pocket costs for most members. Allina gained new patients from this insurance pool, saved money on drug costs as members overwhelmingly chose generic over name-brand drugs, and was so pleased it introduced the plan to all of Allina. For SEIU members and Allina this truly was a win-win.
During this period of partnership, our Union also collaborated with Allina on more than 50 other projects to improve efficiency and patient satisfaction scores. Our efforts helped Allina save money across these projects and our members felt good that our ideas were taken seriously. We were able to make a difference for our own families, for patients and even for Allina’s bottom line.
Allina has changed under Dr. Wheeler’s leadership. In 2015, Allina unilaterally cancelled our labor-management partnership. Today at Unity Hospital, there are 345 SEIU members who voted to join the Union and after a year of negotiating want nothing more than to be added to the same Allina First plan that is offered to SEIU members across the rest of Allina. Dr. Wheeler has refused. The only health plan they are willing to discuss to with these workers is one with out-of-pocket costs that are higher by thousands of dollars per year and where each employee is charged a premium based on the results of health tests.
Service workers at Unity Hospital are charged more per month in premiums than SEIU members at nearby Mercy Hospital, which Allina is merging with Unity Hospital as “one hospital two campuses.” Why, after more than a year of bargaining, is Allina still refusing to agree to give Unity Hospital workers the same plan Dr. Wheeler is now praising as a reason for nurses to end their strike? It seems that on many fronts Allina wants complete control of their health plans so they can make changes that boost Allina’s profits at the expense of employees.
For many SEIU members, the Allina First plan was a big step forward, achieved through bargaining, not unilateral change. Dr. Wheeler’s rhetoric about Union collaboration refers to an era that she herself has decided to end. Neither nurses nor the community should be fooled by her talking points. If Allina, under Dr. Wheeler’s leadership, were honestly collaborating with Unions there wouldn’t be a strike and SEIU members at Unity would have a contract with the same Allina First insurance that Dr. Wheeler has been praising. We stand in full support of the nurses in their strike and call on Dr. Penny Wheeler to offer the SEIU members at Unity Hospital the same Allina First plan she has been praising so publicly.