STANFORD — As thousands of nurses remain on the picket line outside Stanford Hospital and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital amid ongoing contract negotiations, fear and frustration have set in for many as Stanford Health Care warned that health benefits will be cut off for all nurses not on the job May 1st.
It’s a major oversight from union leaders who told this news organization they did not anticipate that Stanford Health Care would rescind nurses’ health benefits during the strike, which is completely legal. And, though the union brass informed members prior to the April 7 strike authorization vote that they could lose their benefits, 93% of unionized nurses still voted to strike.
In a notice to nurses out on strike, Stanford Health Care said nurses not on the job at the beginning of the month will have to apply for health coverage through COBRA, a federal program that allows employees to temporarily extend their group health benefits usually at very high costs.
“Standard national practice is that employer-paid benefits are only provided to employees who are actively working,” Stanford Health Care said in a statement. “During this work stoppage, we’ve made it clear that nurses who choose to strike may continue their health coverage through COBRA… This standard practice is not unique to our hospitals and applies to any of our employees who are not working, are on unpaid status and are not on an approved leave.”
The message came as a shock to many nurses who rely on medical benefits to pay for the medical care they are receiving. Nurses’ union president Colleen Borges said in an interview Thursday many nurses have immediate medical needs they need to pay for, including weekly mental health appointments, prenatal appointments and even lung disease therapies that would be inordinately expensive if benefits are cut off.
But both Borges and union vice president Kathy Stromberg admitted they didn’t consider that nurses would lose their healthcare benefits during the strike when weighing the pros and cons of direct action in seeking a new contract.
“What we have known to be the practice is that you remain eligible,” Borges said. “There has never been a practice that you have to work. Your benefits are uninterrupted.”
In a statement Wednesday, Democratic Congresswoman Anna Eshoo of Menlo Park said she is “deeply disturbed” that nurses will lose their benefits and made clear she “opposes any and all efforts to take away health insurance from workers and their families.”
U.S. Senator Alex Padilla also joined nurses on the picket line Friday to show his support for the strike, and to talk about the health care coverage issue.
For nurses who rely on their coverage like pregnant Packard bedside nurse Jessica Butler, the news she might lose her benefits for the month of May — even if Stanford, Packard and the union reach an agreement next week — is too much to bear.
“It feels like a slap in the face,” Butler said. “They say they value us but this is showing that that’s not true.”
But nurses who were part of the last strike in 2000 which lasted over 50 days say cutting off benefits to striking nurses is not standard practice and could be a union-busting tactic aimed at forcing a deal sooner. According to several nurses familiar with the 2000 strike, nurses were given the choice to continue their health benefits by writing checks to the Stanford Health Care Benefits department, not through COBRA.
Borges — who in 2000 was a bedside nurse not in a leadership role with the union — said that Stanford Hospital gave nurses “medical coupons” in order for them to pay the hospital for benefits during the time of the strike. It’s the same practice for any nurse who goes on leave, she said.
“When you were out on leave and you no longer were in paid status you would pay your benefit through these coupon books that the hospital gives us,” Borges said. “That is what I recall. I don’t ever recall paying for COBRA. I never purchased COBRA and in looking back several nurses also did not see payments to COBRA, but to Stanford itself.”
The difference now, Borges said, is that the “hospital told us we are no longer eligible for benefits as of May 1st and our benefits would stop.” And she added that “even if we come back to work sometime in May, Stanford said they would not be able to reinstate our benefits until June 1st.”
When asked about the “medical coupon” system employed in 2000, Stanford Health Care spokeswoman Julie Greicius said her team “will need some time to look into this” but confirmed that back then, “as today, nurses who choose to strike may continue their health coverage through COBRA.”
ICU nurse Rachel Gratz-Beken said she hopes the hospital will rescind its decision to cut off benefits for striking nurses as COBRA payments tend to be quite high.
As it stands, she will have to pay $4,500 to keep her and her two children covered next month. One of her kids, who is a competitive gymnast, suffered a minor injury for which she needs medical attention in May, so the COBRA payment was a “huge eye-opener for her.”
“That’s quite a bit of money considering we had no idea about this,” Gratz-Beken said. “Right now I’m insured by the Stanford healthcare plan and I pay around $100 per paycheck which is reasonable. But $4,500? It makes me extremely upset, and disheartened and left me in disbelief. My family will take a financial hit during this time.”