On February 22, a little-noticed hearing replayed one of the fundamental problems of our state—decision-making dominated employee union officials. This fact explains why government costs increase and service levels decrease.
The drama of the hearing was about a bill, SB 5811, to make “wellness programs” a part of health benefits for public employees. A wellness program is a series of policies which encourages good health practices with incentives and consequences. In theory addressing smoking, obesity and other behaviors leading to health risks can save money on the cost of health benefits.
The bill seeks to accomplish this by requiring a wellness program for all state employee health benefit plans and does not permit the union officials to deny such a program or to negotiate the amounts the state will invest in wellness incentives.
Any change in the scope of the bargaining table, however, is a serious offense in the eyes of those who collect bargaining dues for a living.
Senator Tom, who introduced the bill, explained that he wanted the state to realize the cost-savings associated with incentives for wellness.
Immediately, two Senators spoke about how important it is that employee union officials be given a say on these issues. It is worth knowing that Senator Conway was a career employee of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union and that Senator Keiser was a career employee of the Washington State Labor Council.
A representative of Group Health spoke about the value of such programs, and then two union representatives spoke, Ellie Menzies from the Service Employees International Union 1199 and Greg Devereux of the Washington Federation of State Employees.
Mr. Devereux argued for keeping this issue entirely subject to the collective bargaining process. He said the bill was unnecessary, since the union officials in negotiations are “discussing wellness options with the Inslee administration.”
As a brief reminder, just the two union organizations represented by those testifying spent at least $1.7 million dollars to make sure that those discussions were to be with Jay Inslee rather than Rob McKenna.
Senator Hill wryly asked that since everyone appears to be testifying about what a good idea wellness programs are, why do we not have them for Washington employees?
The answer is that union officials would not agree to those requested by Governor Gregoire when most recently sought in collective bargaining. The bill would remove their power to continue to have a veto over the policy.
Taxpayers and clients of state services should have a strong interest in managing costs and maximizing services. This is exactly opposite of the interests of the union officials who properly want higher wages and benefits, lower accountability and lighter workloads for the employees they are paid to represent.
The hearing regarding SB 5811 was only regarding one tiny portion of health benefits for one portion of public employees. However, it represents the tip of a very large iceberg of employee interests dominating policymaking, budgeting and services in state government.