If the open-ended nurses strike at Allina Health’s Twin Cities hospitals continues through Oct. 1, striking nurses will have to begin paying for the full cost of their health care coverage.
No new negotiations have been announced as the Minnesota Nurses Association’s strike stretched into its third week. Allina, meanwhile, has said about 500 staff nurses have crossed picket lines, joining some 1,500 replacement nurses to staff the five area hospitals, which include United Hospital in St. Paul.
Thousands of nurses walked off the job on Labor Day, striking largely over issues related to Allina’s plan to end their union-only health plan and transition the nurses to the corporate plan that covers other Allina employees.
Allina’s September contribution to those union plans ends Oct. 1. After that, if Allina’s striking nurses want to stay on their current plans, they have to sign up for COBRA and shoulder the entire cost of their health care until they return to work.
Minnesota Nurses Association spokesman Rick Fuentes said the union cannot tell how many nurses would decide to go back to work because of the higher cost, but “(coverage) is a concern, and the nurses are talking about it.”
Nurses’ health insurance has been the major point of conflict in contract negotiations between the MNA and Allina Health, which began in February. This, along with workplace safety and staffing issues, also led to a weeklong strike in June, which cost Allina $20 million.
Shortly before the current strike began, union negotiators agreed to phase out the nurses-only plans by 2020. But sticking points remained.
Minneapolis-based Allina expects many nurses to return to work at or by Oct. 1, though not specifically due to health care or economic necessity, company spokesman David Kanihan said. “The number (of returning nurses) has grown pretty steadily since the strike began, really, and I think what that indicates is that a growing number of nurses do not support this strike as a way to settle our differences,” Kanihan said.
About 375 staff nurses have worked through the entire strike and an additional 128 have returned to work in the past two weeks, Kanihan said. Union spokesmen have questioned that number, saying that they cannot verify it.
But “we know it down to the single digit,” Kanihan said. That’s because Allina has to track every employed nurse who decides to work, because they have to be put back on the schedule and payroll. “There’s no reason the union should have that information or need to verify it.” Since the open-ended strike began, Allina has continued to run its five striking facilities at normal capacity using staff and replacement nurses, Kanihan said.
According to union spreadsheets, individuals on the most popular union-only plan going on COBRA would pay $1,060 a month for coverage, while families would pay $2,545. The usual monthly premiums on these plans are $144 for an individual and $456 for a family.
On Allina’s most popular plan — one of three they say they want nurses to choose from — the monthly premium is $86 for a single employee and $434 for a family, according to union spreadsheets. This is what the nurses would pay if they were on the corporate plan and not on strike.
Although the premiums are cheaper on the corporate plan, the problems for the nurses union stem from higher deductibles, fewer provider choices and other issues, the union says.
Other options for striking nurses could be to go onto a spouse’s insurance plan — if possible — or buy temporary insurance through the MNsure health care exchange or a broker, Fuentes said. “Essentially, they have a choice,” Fuentes said. “It’s not like October 1 they have a huge deadline.”
COBRA coverage, once purchased, is also valid retroactively for up to 60 days. So, some nurses may choose to gamble that they will stay healthy, waiting until the day they head into a doctor’s appointment to begin paying for insurance through COBRA, Fuentes said. “It’s very likely some will try to do that. … But some, obviously, won’t want to take that chance and will (purchase coverage upfront) anyways,” Fuentes said.
Nurses are eligible for a special enrollment period through MNsure because their employer sponsored coverage is ending, according to a union handout to help nurses decide what health care options are best for them if still on strike at the end of the month.
For Allina to continue covering their share of the nurses’ health care costs, now-striking nurses must work at least one shift before Oct. 1, Kanihan said.