The Real Reason SEIU Pulled its Ballot Measures Targeting Hospitals

Of the ballot measures filed by the union, one would have limited compensation of nonprofit hospital executives, while a second would have required hospitals to set uniform and reasonable rates for their services.

Speculation is mounting over what triggered SEIU, one of the state’s most powerful labor unions, to pull its ballot measures forcing hospitals to end overpricing and bring healthcare costs under control.

After meeting with Governor John Kitzhaber and hospital executives last week, SEIU agreed to back down. But that doesn’t mean the campaign is over.

Felisa Hagins, political director of SEIU Local 49, said this is the first time hospital officials have agreed to meet with the union, despite repeated requests.

“Elections come every two years,” she told The Lund Report. “We tried sitting down with the hospitals and engage them on meaningful change before but haven’t been successful, and feel this is a good step moving forward.”

The conversations with hospital officials are intended to accelerate the Triple Aim – improve patient care, improve health and reduce the per capita costs of healthcare.

The sticky issue about unionizing hospital employees could crop up as well. Currently, in the Portland metropolitan area, only workers Oregon Health & Science University are fully unionized. The nurses at Providence Health & Services are represented, along with the housekeepers and other staff at Legacy Health, but not its nurses. Previous attempts have been thwarted by hospital executives who have felt threatened by having their entire work force represented by unions.

In the coming weeks, when discussions get under way between SEIU and hospital executives, a high-ranking official from the governor’s office will be at the table, Hagins confirmed. Kitzhaber has been a consistent supporter of collective bargaining and opposing so-called "right-to-work" anti-union laws. The unions have rewarded him handsomely, pouring more than $2 million into his campaign in 2012 to defeat Republican opponent Chris Dudley.

Although the five largest hospital systems in Oregon agreed to meet with SEIU – Legacy Health, Providence Health & Services, Oregon Health & Science University, Kaiser Permanente NW and PeaceHealth, that doesn’t mean the smaller hospitals –including Salem Health and Tuality Health – are off the hook.

“A lot of hospitals aren’t on the list but that doesn’t mean they won’t be involved,” Hagins said. “Salem is not unique in any way. Our goal is to move the Triple Aim forward. We’re not going in with any preplanned agenda of what has to happen and really want to see how we can work together.”

Shortly before SEIU yanked its ballot measures, the Oregon Attorney General’s office had certified two of its five ballot measures, and union workers were prepared to launch a statewide campaign to gather the 87,000 signatures for the November 2014 general election ballot.

“Our signature gathering team is ready to pound the pavement, and we’ve hired a campaign manager and communications team with a track record of victory,” Hagins said in a press release. “We’re telling our story online, in the press and in communities around the state. There is already a groundswell of support from Oregonians who are tired of being underserved and overcharged. SEIU has a clear history of success at the ballot, and we look forward to a successful campaign leading to victory on behalf of working Oregonians.”

When asked if the hospitals had agreed to meet with SEIU out of concern the union would succeed at the ballot box, Andy Van Pelt, chief operating officer of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, told The Lund Report:

“Oregonians prefer collaboration to campaigns and political posturing. The initiatives were unnecessary and would only increase the complexity of an already complex system. That doesn't serve the interests of patients. The governor's solution allows us to work together on common sense solutions that improve the health outcomes of all Oregonians.”

The two ballot measures certified were:

Initiative 30 would have limited executive compensation at nonprofit hospitals to 15 times the annual wage of the lowest-paid employees.

Initiative 40 would have required hospitals to set uniform and reasonable rates for services, and capped the amount hospitals charge patients and insurance companies to no more than 30 percent above the actual cost of care. It also stipulated that customers could receive a refund of charges in excess of the rate cap.

“Oregonians overwhelmingly agree that healthcare costs are out of control,” according to Hagins. “Even though all but two Oregon hospitals are not-for-profit charities, Oregon hospitals currently charge patients $10 billion more than the cost of care, and healthcare costs push thousands of Oregonians into bankruptcy every year. It’s time to ensure that our hospitals are living up to their responsibility to provide all Oregonians with quality care they can afford.”

The remaining three ballot measures that had not been certified would have:

Required hospitals to make quality-of-care information accessible to the public;

Required hospitals to post information that enabled patients to compare hospital prices;

Required non-profit hospitals to donate 5 percent of their service costs to  charity and prohibit them from claiming losses from Medicare reimbursements as charity.

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