Allina’s CEO leaves town as nursing strike begins

Striking Allina Health nurses in the Minneapolis-St Paul area are asking, “Where’s Penny?”

They’re referring to Dr. Penny Wheeler, Allina’s CEO, who left town on the first day of the strike to visit Salt Lake, Utah where she was attending the Healthcare Analytics Summit, a yearly conference sponsored by Health Analytics, a health care technology company that Allina recently purchased for $108 million.

Health Analytics uses the yearly summit to pitch its technology wares to customers.

“Dr. Penny Wheeler, you need to respond to the nurses’ proposal, but we know you can’t because you’re not here,” said Angela Becchetti, a registered nurse and member of the nurses’ negotiating team. “We know you and Ben Bache-Wiig (vice president of Allina’s Abbott Northwestern hospital in Minneapolis) are at the Health Catalyst conference, and you’re not paying attention to us or what nurses need.”

Nearly 5000 nurses at five of Allina’s facilities walked off the job on Labor Day after the representatives of Allina walked out on contract negotiations with the nurses’ union, the Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA).

The contentious negotiations had been going on since February and a federal mediator had been called in to help get a fair deal done.

The main point of contention is Allina’s demand that the nurses dissolve their own health care plan and transfer to the company’s plan. Doing so would cost the nurses considerably more because the company’s plan has higher premiums, deductibles, and co-pays.

Allina also wants take health care off the bargaining table and make unilateral decisions about future changes to its health care plan.

High quality and affordable health care is essential for nurses, whose job constantly exposes them to contagious diseases and a high risk of injury.

MNA had agreed to a phase out of the nurses’ own high quality, affordable plan, but the union wanted a gradual transition to the company plan and higher pay to lessen the financial impact of transferring to the higher-cost company plan.

Rather than negotiate a fair transition, Allina walked out on the negotiations, leaving nurses with no alternative but to strike.

“Nurses saw how Allina Health behaved at the table,” said Becchetti. “Just like a bully, Allina demanded nurses give up their affordable health insurance plans, and when we agreed to phase them out, they wanted more.”

Becchetti said that an agreement was close, but Allina would not guarantee that “nurses’ benefits wouldn’t be cut or diminished.”

“Allina Health has been asking to terminate the nurses health plans, and the nurses were willing to allow them to be phased out,” said Rose Roach, MNA executive director.  “But Allina must have felt they had a weak victim in the nurses, because they raised the price of an agreement by asking for more concessions.  This is what happens when the profit mindset takes over health care.  Allina is the EpiPen of hospitals.”

Allina calls itself a non-profit hospital company, but it has been acting like a for-profit company.

Mathew Keller, a regulatory and policy nursing specialist for MNA, reports that Allina’s net revenue over the past 6 years has been $1.3 billion and that in 2014 it paid its top 25 executives $23.9 million.

According to Keller, Allina has deposits totaling $160 million in offshore accounts located in the Caribbean islands of Antigua, Barbuda, Aruba, and the Bahamas.

Allina has also been generous to the companies whose executives sit on the Allina board of directors. For example, it paid US Bank $121 million to help Allina refinance low performing bonds that it purchased in 2007. Coincidentally, one of Allina’s board members is Mark Jordahl, the chief investment officer for US Bank.

By its own account, Allina would save $10 million under its proposal to transfer nurses to its own health care plan. In light of its $3.8 billion in annual operating revenue, the savings that it seeks to wring from its nurses is a pittance.

What it appears that Allina is really after is more control over its nurses.

“It’s about them having control and the nurses having no say so whatsoever in their terms and conditions of employment or for the safety and care of their patients,” said Roach in a message to members about the company’s refusal to negotiate a fair contract.

With Wheeler out of town tending to the business of Allina’s new for profit acquisition, MNA has decided to take its case to the Allina board of directors. The union has asked the board for a meeting to provide its members with accurate information.

“Allina Health will spend $20 million every week the nurses are on strike,” said Roach. “How can the stewards of a not-for-profit health care company allow that to happen when we were just $2 million away from a deal at the bargaining table?”

In addition to seeking a hearing from the Allina board, MNA has also filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board. The charge alleges that Allina is committing surface bargaining, a sham form of negotiations in which one side goes through the motions bargaining but has no intention of reaching a deal.

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