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July 08--PAINTSVILLE -- With time running out to reach a new contract, Highlands Regional Medical Center and a union representing 207 of its employees appear far from reaching an agreement.
The hospital and Service Employees International Union -- which represents licensed practical nurses, certified nursing aides, service and maintenance workers, and other support staff -- have been trying to negotiate a new contract for the past month. However, with a Wednesday deadline to reach a deal before the union issues a 10-day strike notice, there appears to be little agreement on several key issues.
SEIU 1199 director Joyce Gibson said the union is fighting to protect workers from a hospital proposal she said would result in an "astronomical cost" for health insurance, while also freezing wages.
According to Gibson, while the hospital currently provides health insurance to employees and their spouses, Highlands is proposing to eliminate spouse coverage, while at the same time doubling premiums, deductibles and total out-of-pocket costs.
But Highlands labor attorney and negotiating team leader Bill Flannery on Monday accused the union of trying to sabotage negotiations.
"While we are working in good faith to produce a fair labor contract, the union appears to be willing to blow up the process with a public relations campaign designed to do damage to the medical center during the final stages of the negotiations," Flannery said.
Gibson said that is not the case. She said employees want to work, but added that they are prepared to do whatever is necessary to protect themselves from the hospital's demands.
"We want to avoid a strike, if at all possible," Gibson said. "But the workers have voted to allow the negotiating committee to send a strike notice, if necessary."
Currently, there appears to be little room for compromise, with union reps saying the hospital's proposed cuts to employee benefits are too severe, while the hospital counters that it must reduce costs to remain competitive and cope with financial stress.
Hospital President and CEO Harold "Bud" Warman said Highlands is trying to deal with recent changes in the health care system that have put the squeeze on small community hospitals.
"The health care market has changed dramatically as well, and Obamacare has hurt many rural hospitals," Warman said. "Kentucky's managed Medicaid in the state has also caused hospitals to have issues such as delayed or reduced payments, and restrictions on inpatient admissions. All of this has led to a tough financial year for the hospital."
But workers say they are in an even more vulnerable position.
Joe Burkett, of Banner, who works in the radiology department at Highlands and at clinics in Paintsville and Harold, said it is not fair to ask workers to make such enormous sacrifices.
"They say that the hospital is in financial stress, peril, that they're facing multiple losses," Burkett said. "But I don't think those costs should be made up on the backs of the workers."
In addition, Burkett said the hospital's proposal to eliminate spouse coverage feels like an unfair attack.
"Highlands, the corporation, might take something off my back, but I won't stand for anyone taking anything off of my wife," he said.
However, Warman said it would be wrong to view the disagreement in those terms.
"Although the union sees the concept of moving spouses off of the insurance plan as an 'attack,' it is actually an idea of the Affordable Care Act, which was supported by SEIU," Warman said. "The health insurance exchange provides a means for spouses to get coverage that may even be subsidized by the government. We have a lot to consider, but we know that there are several ways lowering the cost of health coverage can be achieved and we are working to find the best solution for all."
Highlands chief financial officer and negotiating team member Jack Blackwell said it is unrealistic to expect things to remain the same in the current climate.
"We understand that people get very emotional when it comes to wages and benefits," Blackwell said. "Our goal is to try to find a way to improve our financial condition and still remain competitive in the market on wages and benefits. We all have enjoyed a very generous health insurance plan in the past, but the bottom line is that it is a whole new marketplace out there as far as health insurance is concerned, and some employees believe that all health care should be 100 percent free because they work in a hospital. What they don't realize is that there is a true cost to providing those services. It's just not practical to expect that it be given away."
Highlands phlebotomist Batina Justice, of Spurlock, has been with the hospital nearly 28 years, and she walked the picket lines the last time the union staged a strike in 1999. She recalled contracting pneumonia after picketing in chilly temperatures and says she does not look forward to the prospect of another strike. However, she adds that employees see the hospital's proposal less as a financial issue and more as a family issue, and that gives them strength to deal with taking whatever steps are necessary to protect their loved ones.
"Nobody wants a strike," Justice said. "Everybody would like to settle. But if it comes down to it, we're ready to do it again. If you're out there for a just cause, you do what you have to do."
The two sides are scheduled to resume talks Tuesday at the Carriage House and continue negotiating until Wednesday. If no deal is reached by the end of Wednesday, the union could issue a strike notice as early as Thursday.
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