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Why 700 Striking Health Care Workers in Washington Matter

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Sabrina Duncan has a daughter with disabilities who requires more doctor visits and care than the average child. Until Jan. 1 of this year, her employer, Providence Health & Services, provided a low-deductible health insurance plan that gave her affordable access to the continual care her daughter needs. But earlier this year, Providence switched employees to a high-deductible, "catastrophic" health plan that puts needed care out of financial reach.

"I will not be able to get my young child to the doctors and therapies she needs," Duncan, a health unit coordinator at Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia, Wash., said recently. "How can Providence make my child fail in her growth to become the best person she can be with her disabilities, just to save a buck that they don't even need?"

Duncan is a member of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW and one of 700 Providence Health & Services employees at Providence St. Peter Hospital and Providence SoundHomeCare and Hospice who went on a six-day strike last week to protest the company's decision to shift workers from an affordable health care plan that spreads risk over a large pool of workers to a "catastrophic" plan that exponentially increases deductibles and co-pays, making health care unaffordable for many employees.

The nonprofit Catholic health care company has publicly claimed its decision is consistent with a broader trend of employers backing away from comprehensive health care to an "accountability" model. This so-called "skin-in-the game" approach uses a faulty "responsibility" argument as cover for shifting insurance costs from employers to employees. The idea that workers purchase unnecessary health services because they are shielded from costs is a cynical view lacking evidence. As a health provider, Providence should know better.

Catastrophic plans do result in cost savings -- savings that come from workers forgoing care because they simply can't afford it. A Kaiser Family Foundation study revealed that one-quarter of workers in catastrophic plans report not filling a prescription or not getting a recommended treatment or test such as childhood vaccinations, mammograms, and other life-saving preventive care.

High-deductible plans may be suitable if you're 22 and never had a health problem. But the world doesn't work that way. We all get older. Any one of us at any time can have an unexpected health crisis. And even if we're healthy, we all have someone close to us who may require more health services. Group insurance that spreads risk over a large pool gives more of us access to affordable, needed care. Providence knows this.

The real motivation for employers that adopt these plans certainly is not better, more accountable care; it's beefing up the company's bottom line by transferring more costs to employees. Sadly, it is true that an increasing number of companies are jumping on the bandwagon. In 2012 for the first time, catastrophic plans were the second most common choice in health plan design, behind PPOs and overtaking HMOs. A study by the Rand Corp indicates that within a decade, half of all workers with employer-sponsored health care will have high-deductible, catastrophic plans.

Providence Health & Systems is a profitable, charitable health care behemoth. It operates 27 hospitals in five states including Alaska, California, Montana, Oregon and Washington, and logged more than $239 million in profit last year. The CEO's total compensation increased 100 percent in the last reporting year from $3.1 million to $6.4 million. In spite of its charitable designation and profitability, which hardworking employees help make possible, Providence is steadfast in its push for even more concessions from workers.

What about the workers?

Sabrina is a health unit coordinator. Her colleagues on strike with her include other coordinators, LPNs, hospital admitting personnel, technicians, housekeeping, social workers, dieticians and RNs who work for Providence St. Peter Hospital or Providence SoundHomeCare and Hospice. Their average wage of $31,000 per year is a mere decimal of Providence Health & System's CEO pay. The employees' new $3,000 annual deductible for families is 10 percent of the average worker's pay and a sharp boost from the $750 yearly deductible in their previous health plan.

All of these numbers add up to a strong case for why these 700 striking health care workers in Washington matter.

Providence health workers are standing up, on behalf of all working people, to send a clear message that "normal" cannot be hardworking people like Sabrina and countless others being forced to decide whether they or their children get the health care they need while already rich CEOs get 100 percent pay increases. Corporations cannot continue asking workers to underwrite bigger CEO salaries and dividends for wealthy shareholders.

Enough is enough. All working people should reject the notion that settling for stagnating wages, lack of retirement security and unaffordable health care is just the way it is. Workers at Providence and all around the country have made ample sacrifices. It's time for more employers to put people first.

Find out more about the Washington workers fight to preserve their access to health care at