Negotiations over a new contract for Providence Journal reporters and other employees represented by the Providence Newspaper Guild moved quickly once the two sides agreed to a new health insurance plan, union chief John Hill told me today.
“Five years ago we would have laughed that offer off the table,” Hill said. But “we think in the context of the times, it’s about as good as we’re going to get.”
If approved, the new three-year contract between the Guild and the A.H. Belo-owned Journal would freeze wages and raise medical costs for the union’s roughly 250 members once it takes effect on April 1.
“The basic objective here is to save some jobs if we can,” Hill said. The Journal lost about 150 employees between mid-2008 and March 2009, reducing its total headcount to 562 full- and part-time workers.
While acknowledging that “people don’t like the idea of paying more” – and even he is “not thrilled about it” – Hill said he will push his colleagues to vote in favor of the new contract, which was approved unanimously by the union’s bargaining committee.
Hill emphasized that under the new contract, the maximum out-of-pocket cost for medical expenses a Journal employee would face is $850 for an individual and $1,700 for a family. He also said negotiators fought hard to cap the co-pay rate at 10%. [See the update below for more on that.]
The contract has been approved by the regional union and will now go before the Newspaper Guild-CWA international in Washington, a largely pro forma step.
After that, the contract will be submitted to the Guild’s 250 or so members at the Projo. The day-long ratification vote is likely to take place either at the end of next week or during the week of Feb. 14, Hill said.
If the contract is approved, Hill said he is confident A.H. Belo will not seek to reopen its terms before the agreement expires in 2014. “I think there would have to be some kind of catastrophic change in the business for that to happen,” he said.
Hill was elected the union’s president in 2003 following a bitter battle between management and labor. “It was as bad as the relationship had been maybe since the ’70s,” he said. In recent years, though, “both sides have worked very hard at working with each other.”
Hill, who has not had an opponent for the Guild presidency since 2004, also said he would like to continue to lead the union “for a while” if its members will continue to support him.
Update: A reader familiar with the terms of the proposed contract writes in to point out that describing the co-pays as capped at 10% doesn’t really capture the full range of costs Journal employees will face under the new agreement.
Since these things get pretty complicated, let me quote directly from the union’s latest bargaining bulletin:
With a few exceptions, the agreement calls on us to pay 10% of the bills for many of the services we use, and increases fixed-amount copays for office visits. …
Rates in 2012 will be unchanged from 2011. Some copays, deductibles and maximums go up in 2013. …
The first hit is a new deductible. Individuals will pay for the first $100 (for families, $200) of their medical expenses under the new contract. Those would rise to $200/$400 in 2013.
After that, each of us would pay about 10% of our major medical bills, until we reach an out-of-pocket maximum of $750 per person ($1,500 per family) per year for 2011 and in 2012. Once we hit those limits, the company’s plan will pay for everything. The out-of-pocket maximums will rise to $1,000 per person and $2,000 per family in 2013. …
Office copays will also increase. Current office visits of all kinds are $10 each. That cost will rise to $20 per visit for primary care doctors and for specialists for 2011 and 2012. In 2013, specialist visits will increase to $30 per visit. Emergency room visit copays will be $75 in 2011-12 and $100 in 2013.
For prescription drugs, the copays will be $5 for generic brands, $20 for preferred brands and $40 for non-preferred in 2011-12. The preferred cost will go to $25 and the non-preferred to $40 in 2013.
Office visit copays and prescription drug costs will not count toward the out-of-pocket maximums. Anything with a percentage copay will count toward out-of-pocket maximums. Anything with a set dollar amount won’t, and you will have to pay those charges even after you hit your out-of-pocket maximum. …
The new agreement also calls for our weekly premium contribution to go from 15 percent to 20 percent, which will mean a jump of about $2.50 a week for an individual and $8 a week for a family plan.
One thing Hill mentioned to me earlier that I didn’t include in this post was that the Guild’s bargaining committee traded a lower co-pay for specialist visits in exchange for a higher co-pay for emergency room trips. He said that reflected the priorities of his members.
“Our argument was a specialist is not a discretionary thing,” Hill said. “Your primary care doctor looked and said, ‘I can’t handle this – you need someone who knows what they’re doing.’ “