News & Events

Cambridge Health Alliance seeks to cut nurse retiree healthcare contribution

By Auditi Guha

Wicked Local Cambridge

Posted Jul 01, 2010 @ 06:02 AM

Last update Jul 01, 2010 @ 09:17 AM

Cambridge —

Betty Kaloustian, a recovery room nurse at the Cambridge Hospital, has been working for the Cambridge Health Alliance for 36 years. She was planning to retire in the next few years, but a new executive decision by the organization is now forcing her to think twice.

After just five bargaining sessions with the Cambridge Massachusetts Nurses Association, CHA declared an impasse in negotiations on June 24, implementing its “last, best and final offer” which drastically reduces nurses’ retiree health benefits from 90 percent to 50 percent starting July 1, union representatives told the Chronicle.

“I’m pretty outraged this happened the way it did,” said Kaloustian, who is also co-chairwoman of the Cambridge Massachusetts Nursing Association. “I love the job I do, and I don’t believe I should be forced into this situation. The hospital should honor why we have been working here for so long.”

CHA spokesman Doug Bailey said they have been trying to schedule meetings since January as a decision had to be made by June 30. “We already spent 45 hours negotiating but the meetings didn’t get started until May,” he said. “We deliberated, considered all opinions and acted appropriately.”

The decision affects the 1,400 employees (325 of them are the affected nurses) who are on the public payroll. It also only affects the retiree health benefits and not pension benefits, which are administered under a separate system, Bailey added.

According to Bailey, this change was necessary due to new a federal mandate that requires municipalities to account for their total anticipated retiree health care liability. Previously, state municipalities would account for only the amount that was contributed in a given year. CHA’s liability went from $4 million to nearly $10 million due to this mandated change, an amount that negatively impacts its financial results. Decreasing the number of people on the Cambridge payroll will help reduce their liability and risk. A CHA fact sheet recently handed out, states “Clearly, this is a situation that is unsustainable and we need to make changes in the retiree health insurance program to assure the long-term viability of the benefit.”

“Our goal is to preserve the retiree benefits long term,” Bailey said.

Union leaders claimed the so-called impasse is one-sided and illegal, as they are still ready to meet at the table and continue negotiations.

“CHA has declared an impasse and we are not in agreement with that,” Kaloustian said. “We had additional dates scheduled to meet with them but they [not] with us, which is a violation of state law.”

The union plans to file for state mediation as a next step in the process. Alison Harris from the state’s Labor and Workforce Development refused to comment. She was formerly a CHA spokesperson.

Last year, MNA union leaders said they agreed to a number of concessions because of CHA’s dismal financial position, with the understanding that the company would get its finances in order. As a result, nurses took a wage and step freeze for one year; part-time nurses now pay substantially more for health insurance; and nurses have been plagued by layoffs, furloughs and involuntary cuts in hours.

In a recent flier they circulated, the union says it’s “appalled by this blatant and unwarranted disregard for nurses’ legal rights, not to mention the disrespect it shows for the dedicated caregivers who have given so much to this institution.”

Bailey pointed out only 37 percent of CHA employees are on the public payroll and may be eligible for the retiree health benefit — the majority aren’t.

There are 345 nurses in the Cambridge MNA bargaining unit. Nineteen of them have been hired in the past year onto the Alliance payroll and are no longer eligible for the Cambridge retiree health benefit. That leaves 326 nurses who could qualify over time for the retiree health benefit. 

As of June, 144 meet the criteria to retire. That criteria is 20 years of creditable service and any age or age 55 with at least 10 years of service. If they retire before June 30, they will receive the original benefit of 90 percent of their medial insurance paid for as long as they live. After June 30, the benefit will go to 50 percent paid for by CHA.

As a result, the most senior 60 nurses, who have never paid into Medicare, are seeing their health benefits slashed and their retirement security severely compromised.

Longtime nurse Jillian Katrola, who has worked for about 38 years, retired in time to secure the 90 percent retiree contribution even though she had planned work for another year. Those who don’t won’t be as lucky.

Donna Mondeau, Cambridge MNA co-chairwoman and ICU nurse at the Cambridge Hospital, said she couldn’t afford to retire after 28 years of service, especially as times are tough and jobs are hard to come by. “Health insurance was a part of deal we had agreed on. To decrease from 90 percent to 50 percent without even bargaining with us … It seems we have been railroaded into this,” she said.

A lot of the current nurses started before the Social Security payments did, so they have no Medicare to fall back on. “I feel they are trying to push out a lot of us who have worked here for years,” said Ellen Monahan, who has been a nurse with the CHA for 29 years. “I don’t think it’s right.”

Monahan, whose husband died within 10 years after they were married, is ineligible for spousal health benefits and is dependent on CHA’s benefits package. “I put my whole life in this job looking for a nice retirement,” said Monahan, who is also a Cambridge MNA co-chairwoman. “I don’t think I can retire on what they are offering.”

Copyright 2010 Cambridge Chronicle. Some rights reserved