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Leg. Update: Let’s make WA’s health exchange work!

Here is today’s edition of the weekly Legislative Update the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO (PDF version):

Washington’s health benefit exchange needs basic standards to succeed


OLYMPIA (Jan. 24) — A major battle is unfolding this legislative session that could determine whether federal health care reform succeeds or fails in Washington State when its biggest component is implemented in 2014. The debate pits the concerns of health care consumers against the priorities of the powerful insurance industry regarding Washington’s new health benefit exchange, a menu of private and federally subsidized health plans from which consumers can choose starting that year.

The battle lines were drawn last week in health care committee hearings on governor-requested legislation — SB 6178 sponsored by Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Kent) and HB 2319 sponsored by Rep. Eileen Cody (D-West Seattle). Testifying in support of the bills, the Insurance Commissioner’s Office and advocates for consumers said that, without restrictions on the types of bare-bones cut-rate coverage offered on the open private insurance market — which will operate outside the realm of the exchange — insurers will cream the healthiest customers from the market, prohibitively driving up the costs of the plans within the exchange. They argued that insurers should compete based on the quality of their service and efficiency of their administration rather than on who can offer the most deceptively cheap catastrophic coverage that keeps appropriate medical care out of reach for consumers.

“Having an insurance card doesn’t translate into having access to medical care if the coverage is inaccessible, unaffordable or inadequate,” said the Teresa Mosqueda, Legislative and Policy Director for the Washington State Labor Council, who serves as Chair of the Healthy Washington Coalition.

But the tassel-toed insurance industry lobbyists were out in force to demand that the state stick to the minimum federal requirements set forth in the Affordable Care Act — a law they have adamantly opposed from the outset and continually erected roadblocks to slow its implementation. They oppose any attempt by legislators to customize state rules regarding requiring certain types of plans and levels of coverage offered in Washington’s exchange to ensure its affordability and sustainability, which is what SB 6178 and HB 2319 do.

The deregulated, profit-driven corporate health care model resulted in creative methods of denying medical care, restricting patients’ choices, and inefficient, cumbersome and costly administrative hurdles for consumers, small businesses and health care providers. Insurance companies left to their own devices is what caused the crisis in uninsured Americans and prompted the Affordable Care Act in the first place. The vocal insurers who are continuing to oppose additional regulations will undercut the health benefit exchange in Washington State. Consumer advocates continue to urge members of the Legislature to hold firm on sufficient and smart market participation standards, and to ensure consumer friendly health plan criteria.

The WSLC joins Gov. Chris Gregoire, Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, and advocates for consumers in supporting SB 6178 and HB 2319 to establish a health care exchange in Washington that does not adhere to the one-size-fits-all federal minimums. Let’s create an exchange that works for us, one that is simplified, fair, and designed to succeed in expanding affordable, accessible coverage for all.


Press briefing on jobs bill Wednesday

Legislative leaders of both parties continue to express support for the concept of the Infrastructure Jobs Bond: frontloading capital projects to create desperately needed jobs now. But, as the clock ticks on creating these jobs in time for the coming construction season, negotiations continue on the size of the package and the specific list of projects.

The labor-business coalition supporting this legislation will hold a press briefing this Wednesday at 10 a.m. in the Senate’s Cherberg Building. Construction workers, contractors, small business owners, veterans, service workers, and others who would benefit from the Infrastructure Jobs Bond will explain why they support it.

In addition, the WSLC will be sharing video clips of unemployed workers — like Terri Johnson, Anthony Campbell and Miranda Gonzales (below) — telling their stories to remind state legislators that the jobs crisis continues, especially in the construction trades.


Nurses seek breaks for patient safety


Last week, the Senate Labor, Commerce and Workforce Development Committee had a compelling hearing on SB 6309, sponsored by Sen. Margarita Prentice (D-Renton). Nurses and public safety advocates made a strong case for passing this bill to require uninterrupted meal and rest breaks for nurses and health-care professionals who provide direct patient care. SB 6309 also protects hospital workers from retaliation or being fired if they report missed breaks.

Pilots, truck drivers and others whose work affects public safety already have minimum standards for rest breaks to avoid impaired judgment and mistakes. Why shouldn’t nurses? Every year, an estimated 100,000 patients in this country die from preventable medical errors, injuries and deaths at hospitals, and studies show that fatigue is one of the primary causes of those errors. Meal and rest breaks will help patient care providers stay alert and focused, which will improve patient safety. The bill allows for exceptions to uninterrupted breaks in response to critical patient care for patient emergencies and major disasters.

SB 6309 is part of a package of patient safety legislation supported by the Washington Association of Nurses, SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, UFCW Local 21, United Staff Nurses Union/UFCW 141, and the WSLC. The other two bills, both sponsored by Rep. Tami Green (D-Tacoma) are HB 2519 setting minimum standards for safer nurse staffing and HB 2501 placing restrictions on mandatory overtime for health-care workers. Both bills are scheduled to be heard Tuesday at 10 a.m. in House Labor & Workforce Development.

Learn much more about these bills at the WSNA website.


Hearings this week on paid sick leave


In 2011, the City of Seattle joined a growing list of municipalities around the country that, in the interest of public safety and fundamental workplace rights, established a minimum standard for the provision of paid sick leave for all workers. Small business owners, public health experts, communities of faith, and labor advocates joined together to support the passage of this historic legislation.

It’s time to extend this basic protection to all workers in Washington. An estimated 1 million workers in our state get no paid time off when they are sick, including 170,000 in food service and accommodation, 167,000 in retail, and 93,000 in health care and social assistance. Paid sick days are needed to prevent the spread of disease and ensure people can care for their health needs without losing a day’s pay, or their job.

SB 6229, sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle), and HB 2508, sponsored by Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson (D-Seattle) will both have committee hearings this week. Under these bills, businesses with 5 or more employees must allow workers to accrue at least 1 hour for every 40 worked up to a 40-hour cap. The caps on banking sick leave hours would be higher for larger businesses.

SB 6229 will be heard Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. in Senate Labor & Commerce. HB 2508 will be heard Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. in House Labor & Workforce Development. The WSLC joins many others in supporting this legislation.


Kudos for public workers, legislators


As our state was slammed by snow and ice storms last week, with Olympia and Southwest Washington particularly hard hit, the following statement was issued by Jeff Johnson, President of the Washington State Labor Council:

“Last week’s winter storms were a striking reminder for all of how important our public employees are in keeping essential services running and repairing downed power lines. We owe a great deal of thanks to our city, county and state public works employees, our first responders, our health care workers, our transit workers, and our electrical linemen.

“Kudos also to our state legislators and legislative staff who braved the snow and ice to continue doing the peoples’ work. All of these workers exemplify the best of public service.”


Change sought in contracting reform


HB 2452, sponsored by Rep. Sharon Wylie (D-Vancouver), cracks down on state contracting abuses and streamlines the process. At a hearing last week, the Washington Fair Trade Coalition suggested amending the bill to require officials choosing contracts to consider whether a business ensures decent working conditions for employees at home and abroad.

Our state shouldn’t reward “irresponsible bidders” that violate domestic and international labor standards in order to undercut their competitors who play by the rules. The WSLC supports this amendment to HB 2452 and urges its adoption.

More important hearings this week


SENATE FINANCIAL INSTITUTIONS — Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., SB 6310 (Sen. Keiser) to create a Washington Investment Trust.

HOUSE BUSINESS & FINANCIAL SERVICES — Thursday at 8 a.m., HB 2434 (Rep. Hasegawa) to create a Washington Investment Trust.

SENATE LABOR & COMMERCE — Thursday at 10 a.m., SB 6397 (Sen. Kohl-Welles) protecting workers and communities from pesticide draft (companion HB 2413 from Rep. Reykdal was heard last week).

SENATE LABOR & COMMERCE — Monday, Jan. 30 at 10 a.m., SB 6302 (Sen. Kohl-Welles) to protect injured workers’ access to medical care by clarifying due process protections for physicians in the workers’ compensation medical providers network (companion HB 2359 from Rep. Reykdal was heard last week).


Stay tuned at The Stand!


This Legislative Update newsletter will be published every Tuesday during the 2012 session, outlining the legislative agenda of the Washington State Labor Council and its affiliated unions. (See previous editions.) In addition, stay apprised of developments in Olympia at The Stand — — Your Internet Newsstand in Washington State. It features daily updates on legislative action, plus all other news affecting working families.

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