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Senate panel explores value of state-worker wellness programs and collective bargaining for health benefits

Post by Brad Shannon / The Olympian on Feb. 21, 2013 at 6:49 pm with No Comments »
February 21, 2013 6:57 pm
Sen. Rodney Tom
Sen. Rodney Tom

A proposal to require state workers to participate in wellness programs as part of receiving state-subsidized health insurance plans got a hearing Thursday. Labor unions opposed both the mandate and a proposal to strip health-care benefits from the pay contracts that workers negotiate with the governor.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, sponsored Senate Bill 5811, saying he thinks the state must get a handle on health costs triggered by smoking and obesity. In testimony he cited King County’s well-regarded program, which Gov. Jay Inslee cited on the campaign trail last year, as an example of where the state should go on preventive care.

Tom told the Senate Ways and Means Committee that if the state doesn’t start to tackle costs by encouraging smoking cessation and discouraging obesity, “we’ll continue to see our healthcare costs spiral out of control.”

But one expert on designing successful programs for Group Health Cooperative in Seattle said that getting workers’ buy-in is crucial for programs to success – testimony that appeared to undercut Tom’s premise.

TVW carried the Senate Ways and Means Committee hearing here:

Tom’s proposal lets the state dictate terms of wellness programs, including rewards or penalties for participating. And he would strip healthcare insurance from the collective bargaining rights of workers.

Elisabeth Buchman, who works in product development at Group Health, told the committee that having employees participate in the design of a program is key to getting results. That can include participating by unions.

“It needs to be the combination of the carrot and the stick,’’ Buchman said. “If people feel manipulated or forced into these programs, they don’t do it.’’

Buchman said health plans can save money and some research shows $3 in savings for $1 invested. But she cautioned that programs around the country have had varied success and that outcome depends on how a plan is put together.

Buchman also said that changing behavior requires a sustained commitment. She said King County continues to add features, including a recent piece that targeted diabetes.

Greg Devereux, director of the Washington Federation of State Employees, indicated that wellness programs are already part of talks that unions will be having with the new Inslee administration – after talks with the former administration fell through. He also said that collective bargaining needs many tools to be successful, and that removing a piece like healthcare “shackles the collective bargaining process.’’

Ways and Means chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, questioned why the state does not have a mandatory wellness program to encourage less smoking and reduce obesity – if the programs are so clearly beneficial.

Devereux said a mandate was not needed, because the wellness programs will likely be part of the next agreement worked out with the Inslee administration.

Appearing a little irritated, Hill replied: “I look forward to a positive outcome.”

Also speaking against the bill was Ellie Menzies, legislative director for Service Employees International Union 1199NW, which represents nurses at hospitals and in state institutions. Menzies said employee involvement in bargaining and designing programs is needed to make them work.

Democratic Sen. Karen Keiser of Des Moines said there are better approaches such as that in Senate Bill 5474, which requires the Health Care Authority to design programs that more strongly encourage healthy activities and use financial incentives to get there.

Sponsored by Democratic Sen. Mark Mullet of Issaquah, that bill expands wellness programs at work sites – such as giving flu vaccinations, mobile mammography services, courses in chronic disease management and weight control programs.

Mullet’s bill moved out of the Senate Health Care Committee on Thursday. But the future of both proposed bills is unclear.

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