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Group Health workers take to picket line

Rather than putting on her stethoscope and heading into work Monday morning, Sandy Heinzle laced up her sneakers and headed to the picket line. Heinzle joined about 40 members of the Service Employees International Union Local 1199 Northwest along Silverdale Way to protest what they believe are unfair labor practices on the part of their employer, Group Health Cooperative.

The journey to the picket line was a long one, she said.

Heinzle has worked for the cooperative for 34 years and was on the bargaining team that was negotiating a new contract between SEIU 1199NW and Group Health. Negotiations started in May 2003, she said. The negotiations between the health care cooperative and the health care workers are stalled over -— of all things -— health care benefits.

The health care cooperative wants its workers to pay a higher copay for doctor’s visits and to start paying health care premiums. The health care workers say that’s unfair to have to pay premiums because they never have before.

The copays began in the mid-90s, when Group Health was undergoing tight financial times, Heinzle said. The copay is currently $5, and the cooperative wants it to be $15. Group Health is also asking its employees to begin paying deductibles and spousal surcharges if the spouse has other heath benefits available and chooses Group Health anyway.

Heinzle said the employees of Group Health have given up enough. During the leaner times in the 1990s, employees gave up pay raises for three years. Now that times are good again, the employees don’t think it’s acceptable they should have to pay up for health benefits.

“Group Health is doing really well financially,” she said. “I have a vested interest in making the cooperative healthy, but it doesn’t need our money right now. They’re treating us very disrespectfully.”

Fellow picketer Danna Burnett has been working with Group Health since 1989. She has a husband and two children, ages 21 and 11, and said she was picketing because Group Health is supposed to be a leader in health care benefits, so it was important she and her coworkers stand up to the company.

“What happens with Group Health I feel it’s going to be a chain reaction,” she said. “Health care is a big problem in Washington and something needs to be done.”

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