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HMO workers strike over health benefits

HMO workers strike over health benefits

SEATTLE (AP) -- About 1,700 nurses and other health care workers formed picket lines to start a five-day strike against Group Health Cooperative -- one of the nation's oldest HMOs -- over the cost of their own health benefits. Nurses, medical assistants, therapists and others represented by Service Employees International Union Local 1199 began striking at 18 clinics in western Washington, union spokesman Carter Wright said Monday. Negotiations between the two sides ended last week.

Before the walkout began, Group Health transferred an undisclosed number of maternity patients, rescheduled outpatient surgery and postponed back-to-school physical exams. Nonstriking employees and outside replacement workers filled in for the union members. The walkout is scheduled to end at midnight Friday. Group Health, a nonprofit health maintenance organization begun in 1947, says it needs its employees to pay more for health benefits to save money and prevent the HMO from passing on costs to members in the form of higher premiums.

Union workers now get benefits with no premiums or deductibles. They make $5 co-payments for office visits and prescriptions. Group Health wants to raise co-payments to $15, institute deductibles and charge premiums on a sliding scale. Union members say they are willing to contribute more but not as much as Group Health has sought, adding that some employees could not afford health coverage under the cooperative's proposal. Union members range from nurses making $70,000 a year to custodians making $24,000. Group Health is the second largest consumer-governed HMO in the nation