November 18, 2010

Message to Gregoire: Proposed 26% health premiums for 2012 and 2013 are a "state employee heath care tax burden" that would be "cruelest things the governor could do."

More than 100 Federation members from as far away as Pasco, Cheney and Spokane packed the halls of the state Capitol in Olympia yesterday (Nov. 17) to tell the governor “enough is enough” on her health care scheme.

They delivered more than 150 heart-wrenching letters from members telling of the economic hardships they’d face under her plan to make state employees pay 26 percent of their premiums in 2012 and 2013. The issue is stalled at the bargaining table.

Under figures provided by the state’s health care bargainers, an employee under the Uniform Medical Plan could end up paying $5,100 a year in premiums alone to cover their family.

If you looked at the governor’s proposed premiums for 2012 and 2013 as a “State Employee Health Care Tax,” that burden would slam those making less, like custodians and office assistants, while hardly inconveniencing those who make much more, like the governor and legislators.

For instance, a food service worker would pay 18 percent of his or her gross salary on premiums alone – before any other deductions.

So the message to the governor: We’ve been there for the state, defend us and save our health care.

“To have our people scapegoated and to have their health care taken from them in this way is perhaps the cruelest thing the governor could do,” Federation President Carol Dotlich told Marty Loesch, the governor’s director of external affairs, as the Federation members in AFSCME green shirts crowded into the governor’s conference room.

(Loesch said the governor was unable to meet with them in person because she had just been elected chair of the National Governors Association and was on the phone with the likes of Gov.-Elect Jerry Brown of California and Gov.-Elect Andrew Cuomo of New York.)

In the governor’s office and beforehand in a huge meeting room a floor below, Federation members said the proposed health care tax burden was just plain unfair.

“I believe state employees are being kicked when they’re down already,” said Nellie Reynolds, Local 931, Eastern Washington University, Cheney. “That’s not fair. It’s not right.

We’ve dedicated our lives to the public service, to this state. And I think that we deserve a decent health care for us and our families.”

Reynolds and others from Spokane-area locals brought hundreds of cut-out AFSCME green shirts with photos of those who couldn’t make the trip. Clipped to a string, they stretched the length of the huge Columbia Room.

“I’m here today to represent all those employees and telling the governor that she shouldn’t take the one benefit from state employees health care that should be afforded to all citizens at an affordable rate,” said Ginger Richardson, Local 308, Corrections, King county.

“We’ve had enough. We don’t need any more cuts to us. We’ve taken it already in so many different ways. Leave our health care alone.”

“These people I’m seeing are making $23,000 or so a year in income on top of all of their bills they’re struggling with already,” said Nathaniel Mountain, a custodian 1 with the Department of General Administration in Olympia and a member of Local 443. “I think it’s very hard and difficult for them to afford raising the health care cost.”

Mountain and other custodian 1s would face a State Employee Health Care Tax burden of 22 percent of their gross salary (UMP, full family coverage) under the governor’s plan.

Maureen Garrett, an office assistant 3 with the Department of Ecology in Lacey and a member of Local 443, said she has cut back on visits to the doctor “because I can’t afford 25 bucks a pop.”

“We need to keep our dignity,” she said. “We need respect. We don’t need to be cut down and being used because it’s easy to target state employees right now.”

Garrett and other office assistant 3s face a State Employee Health Care Tax burden of 15 percent of their gross salary (UMP, full family coverage) under the governor’s plan in 2013.

The Federation members gave wave after wave of compelling stories:

Charyn Niemeyer, a medical assistant specialist 3 with DSHS in Olympia and a member of Local 443, survived a heart attack on the job two years ago and survived with her health coverage. But it might be different under the increases proposed for 2012 and 2013.

She figured out her co-pays alone would be more than $60,000 – equal to two years of salary.

“My co-workers might as well leave me lay there on the floor and let me die,” Niemeyer said.
Melinda Murphy-Jones, a social worker 3 with DSHS in Tacoma and a member of Local 53, disputed the politicians’ view that the state employee health plan is a “Cadillac” plan.

“It’s ridiculous when a memo comes out from DSHS encouraging employees of DSHS who are earning lower wages to apply for Medicaid,” she said. “And they’re state employees? And we have the ‘gravy?’ We’re not quite sure where that gravy is or what the gravy is made of.”

Colleen Rice-Lozensky, a social worker 3 with DSHS in Seattle and a member of Local 843, pulled out prescription bottles of the several medications she needs to control her debilitating migraines and placed them on the governor’s conference table opposite Loesch, the governor’s aide.

“And if the cut comes to where my medicines are cut and I can’t afford these, I’m going to be going on (assistance) because that’s my only option and onto Social Security and Medicaid myself,” she said.

Dan D’Haem, a WorkFirst program specialist in Seattle and a member of Local 843, told of two co-workers on the edge of the cliff brought on by high health costs.

One co-worker, he said, “stops working at the welfare office and she goes immediately to a grocery store where she works another 40 hours every week. And she’s 50. And she’s been working for the state for her entire life.”
Another “is saving up money to be able to afford a bankruptcy attorney,” D’Haem said.

“We will do anything and everything in our power to ensure that our members at least have their health care, health care that they can afford,” Dotlich told the governor’s aides before the group left.

Loesch and Jim Justin, the governor’s legislative director, said they’d deliver the message to Gregoire.

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