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State employee health care deal is a win-win for both sides


(Oct. 2, 2013) — Behind closed doors, a debate recently occurred over government-supplied health care.

No, not that debate. This one ended happily.

In its collective bargaining last year with state workers’ unions for the 2013-15 fiscal biennium, outgoing Governor Christine Gregoire’s administration failed to reach agreement over health care benefits. That left the previous biennium’s health care contract terms in place, principally an “85/15” split where workers pay 15% of premium costs. While the 2013 legislative session funded a state budget that restored 3% wage cuts, Governor Jay Inslee’s administration resumed bargaining over the unresolved health care terms.

At stake for state workers were the costs they pay toward their premiums as well as co-pays and deductibles.  Under terms of an agreement just reached the good news is those costs will not increase.

Despite episodic Seattle Times’ editorials demanding higher premium contributions by state workers, Washington workers fare worse than those in almost any other Democratic state. In Oregon, for example, workers pay 5% of premium costs, with a pathway to 3% in the latest state budget.

Nor do Republican-led states necessarily demand more. In Governor Chris Christie’s New Jersey, workers earning less than $60,000 pay no more than 14% of the premium cost for family coverage. Even Texas, a “right-to-work” paradise to many conservatives, pays 100% of health insurance costs for state workers themselves — though premium share is steep for families.

Further, state workers in other states did not endure pay cuts as did Washington’s. In Washington, it began with 10 unpaid furlough days in the fiscal year beginning July 2010; the Legislature changed this approach to 3% pay cuts from 2011-13. The state work force has also been reduced 12.1% since 2008.

While furloughs were not uncommon in cash-strapped states reeling from the recession, the scale of Washington’s wage cuts may have compared only to California’s; in Oregon 10 furlough days were spread over three years.

Increases in health care costs here would not have been offset by cost-of-living wage increases. Washington workers will see a 1% wage increase effective July 1, 2014 only if state revenue picks up. In comparison, the June agreement for California state workers calls for them to receive a 4.5% wage increase by July 1, 2015; Oregon state workers receive 3.5% wage increases by December 2014.

Consistent with a recurring theme in Gov. Inslee’s 2012 campaign, his Administration bargained for a wellness program to lower costs. State workers were willing to agree to such a program if allowed to be involved in the program’s design, as was true with a similar program for King County workers. It is unclear how much money this approach will recoup, although King County’s program has won acclaim and saved tens of millions of dollars in the past several years.

While it may not please the Times that the 85/15 split is preserved, state government still trails major private sector employers — Boeing and Microsoft — in its treatment of workers when it comes to health care. Washington State has been at the forefront of the nation in affirmatively implementing the Affordable Care Act. Government is at its best when it sets an aspirational standard, as opposed to emulating the worst of the private sector in a pell-mell race-to-the-bottom. Kudos to Gov. Inslee and state workers’ unions for achieving a win for both sides as well as the progressive values both share.

Brendan Williams is a former State Representative from the 22nd Legislative District.

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