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Union trying to save jobs in health

SEIU launches ad blitz for hospital staff

By Kay Lazar
Globe Staff / April 5, 2011

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The largest health care union in Massachusetts launched a media blitz yesterday, complete with television ads, aimed at protecting members’ jobs and highlighting the need for retraining those who do get axed at hospitals as the Patrick administration turns up the heat on cutting health care costs.

Dubbed the “Voices of Quality Care,” the campaign by 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East is timed to coincide with a public forum today on health costs organized by the Patrick administration.

Veronica Turner, SEIU’s executive vice president, said that the union recognizes that sweeping changes in the payment system may mean that some workers will lose their jobs or need to be retrained, but that the union worries that policy makers have not focused on that aspect of cost-cutting.

“We want to make sure people pay attention to that,” Turner said. Health care is the state’s largest employment category, and the SEIU represents more than 40,000 workers in Massachusetts, including certified nursing assistants, lab technicians, radiologists, and patient care coordinators.

A union spokesperson said the SEIU has invested “well over $200,000” on the first phase of its advertising campaign, but the total has yet to be determined.

The Patrick administration has been talking for two years to hospitals, doctors, insurers, consumer groups, and others about how to control medical costs. But Patrick is now trying to push legislation he filed in February that would give him authority to scrutinize the fees paid to hospitals and doctors, among other measures.

Patrick is expected at today’s State House forum, along with his health and human services secretary, Dr. JudyAnn Bigby; his chief of administration and finance, Jay Gonzalez; and Dolores Mitchell, executive director of the Group Insurance Commission, the agency that provides insurance to more than 350,000 state employees and their dependents.

Mitchell was a member of a special commission, created by the Legislature, that in 2009 recommended dramatic changes in the way health care providers are paid. Insurers now pay most providers a negotiated fee for each service or treatment, which critics say creates an incentive to offer excessive care.

Mitchell said that some of the changes anticipated with overhauling this fee-for-service payment system are likely to result in job losses, and she understands the union’s concerns.

“People are anxious about it, especially in an economy where new jobs are hard to get,” Mitchell said. “But we are also mindful of the fact that to simply continue to let costs escalate means we are not doing enough for higher education, for local schools, and for local aid,” she said. “That’s to the benefit of everybody, union and taxpayers.”

Stuart Altman, professor of national health policy at Brandeis University in Waltham and a board member of Tufts Medical Center, said the jobs concerns highlighted by the union are likely to resonate with lawmakers because the union’s campaign has coupled anxieties over cuts with calls for retraining.

“I do know a number of legislators have been reluctant about doing anything on cost containment because they don’t want to do anything that would cut jobs,” Altman said. “So this is a middle ground that says, ‘OK, you need to recognize there are workers here, so maybe for every dollar you cut, maybe put [some money] in for job retraining. It may soften the blow.”

The union is also asking that Medicaid reimbursements to hospitals that care for low-income patients be increased. The SEIU said the inadequate Medicaid rates for these so-called “safety net” and community hospitals create a “cost-shifting problem that forces hospitals to charge private insurers and consumers more to make up the difference.”

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com.