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Editorial: Health care burden should hit state workers too

Gov. Jay Inslee and a coalition of labor groups are in negotiations over health care benefits for state employees but, as always, the details are sparse and the public is being left largely in the dark.

Last year, the unions and Gov. Chris Gregoire shelved talks on benefits when they couldn’t reach an agreement. If a deal can be reached this time, it would cover workers starting in January 2015.

Inslee had heavy labor backing during the 2014 campaign, so don’t expect him to make the sort of tough proposal Gregoire made in 2010, when she called for state workers to pick up 26 percent of their health care costs. At the time they were paying 12 percent. In the end, the unions agreed to pick up 15 percent, which is where things stand now.

Under the Uniform Health Plan, the most popular choice for state workers, an individual employee pays a premium of $79 a month, with the state (taxpayers actually) picking up the other 85 percent of the cost. That’s a health care benefit to envy.

In the private sector, the average worker for a large employer pays 25 percent to 30 percent of their health care costs. Employee contributions have nearly doubled in the past decade.

In the new state-run health care exchanges, the highest-tier plan covers 80 percent of costs. Most people are expected to pick the silver plan, which covers 70 percent of costs.

In short, state workers have been able to protect their benefits from the trends affecting the very taxpayers who fund them.

Nonetheless, the labor coalition is reportedly wary about the governor’s proposal to include a wellness plan aimed at preventing illness and thereby lowering health care costs. The governor’s plan is modeled in part on King County’s, where it was implemented in 2005 and has achieved some savings.

But labor leaders are wary, according to an article in the Olympian, because King County also shifted some costs to employees through higher deductibles, co-pays and other out-of-pocket costs. The coalition wants guarantees that its workers will be inoculated against higher employee costs. If the governor concedes this point, the potential savings to taxpayers will diminish greatly.

All health care benefits need to be on the table. It’s not fair to expect taxpayers who have endured steady increases in their health costs to continue to finance benefits stuck in a time warp. Inslee wants to wrap up negotiations soon so he can include the savings in the supplemental budget he must put together this fall. We’d like to see him slow down and drive a harder bargain on this and future labor contracts.

The Olympian reported that about 300 union members have placed calls to the governor’s office urging him to protect their benefits. Perhaps taxpayers should get on the phone to guard their wallets and purses.

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