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SEIU drops initiatives as part of California hospital accord

A labor union that pushed a pair of ballot measures to rein in excessive hospital billing and expand healthcare for the poor has dropped them -- in exchange for an agreement that, among other things, enlists the hospital industry in the union's organizing efforts.

The agreement, announced late Wednesday, ends a months-long public battle between the Service Employees International Union and the California Hospital Assn. Private hospitals had accused the union of using the initiative process as leverage in contract negotiations to expand its membership, a charge the union strongly denied.

Under the new pact, dubbed a Partnership for a Healthy California, the hospital association pledges to facilitate meetings between the SEIU and CEOs of hospitals and health systems employing 100,000 non-union workers. (Those hospitals, the document notes, are not bound to sign organizing agreements.) In turn, the SEIU agreed not to file petition signatures with county election officials and the secretary of state's office.

On Wednesday, both parties downplayed the organizing component of the deal, instead painting the agreement as the product of an unprecedented partnership dedicated to tackling the most pressing issues in modern healthcare. The SEIU and the hospital assn. vowed to form a labor-management task force to find ways to lower costs, improve quality and expand access.

"This agreement is not a labor-relations agreement," said Dave Regan, president of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West. The deal is a vehicle "to make durable, lasting, meaningful change to a system that everybody understands has to change dramatically and quickly."

There were also more practical considerations.

"Both sides were hoping we could avoid an all-out war at the ballot box," said Jan Emerson-Shea, a spokesman for the California Hospital Assn. "That didn't really serve anybody's objectives."

Opponents of the initiatives had noted that the measures would have had a major effect on facilities the union has tried unsuccessfully to organize, while exempting those where many of its members work.

Dignity Health, the state's largest hospital chain, and Kaiser Permanente, the largest HMO, would not have been subject to the proposals. The measures would have prohibited their private competitors from charging more than 25% above the actual cost of providing care and required nonprofits to devote at least 5% of their patient revenue to free care for the poor.

The union represents nearly 60,000 workers in those two systems. Labor leaders countered that Kaiser and Dignity are model providers.

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--Michael J. Mishak in Sacramento

Twitter.com/mjmishak

 
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