A controversial wellness bill for state employees passed the Senate on a divided vote of 28-21 Wednesday afternoon. Senate Bill 5811 requires financial incentives including premium price breaks or higher premiums to encourage employees to achieve wellness goals.
The vote came just hours before a 5 p.m. cutoff for passing policy bills off the House or Senate floors. The Washington Federation of State Employees had criticized earlier versions of the bill from Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, who had wanted to strip workers of their collective bargaining rights on health benefits.
The amendment offered on the floor by Tom restores that right. It says employees would bargain for the dollar amount of the state’s contribution toward health coverage as well as the workers’ percentage share of health premiums.
Workers now pay about 15 percent of premiums, and the state currently contributes more than $800 per month per worker, on average, for a range of insurance coverage policies including disability and life. Workers have negotiated the percentage share of premiums with the governor – up from 12 percent a few years ago but well below the 25 percent proposed by former governor Chris Gregoire in 2010.
“What this does is move us down that road to wellness,” Tom said before the measure was voted. He said that if the U.S. or state are going to get a handle on rising health care costs, policy makers must address “high cost drivers like obesity and smoking.’’
But Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Vashon, said she worked for King County when the county rules were established, and all stakeholders were brought in to design a full package, including what kinds of health clubs one could join. She said King County’s approach did not rely on a mandate and was the way the Legislature also should go.
Sen. Steve Conway of Tacoma said that Gov. Jay Inslee has initiated talks with state workers on a wellness program, and he suggested that was a better approach than a mandate.
The bill says that by Jan. 1. 2014 all state worker health plans must be offered with a wellness program. It also calls on the governor to appoint an eight-member health and wellness committee – including at least three from labor unions, one from the ranks of nonunion workers and four representing agencies and universities.
The majority that voted for the bill included all but one Republican member of the Majority Coalition Caucus and four Democratic caucus members – Sens. Tracey Eide of Des Moines, Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam, Karen Keiser of Kent, and Mark Mullet of Issaquah. The lone Republican to vote against it was Sen. Pam Roach of Auburn.
Tom’s original bill drew mixed reactions – and criticism from the federation – during a hearing last month.
The bill goes to the House for consideration.