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Unlikely Allies to Collaborate on OR Hospital Improvements

PHOTO: Oregon's governor says he's avoiding "political combat" by asking major hospitals and the union representing many of their workers to participate in discussions and forge partnerships to improve patient care. Photo credit: iStockphoto.com.
PHOTO: Oregon's governor says he's avoiding "political combat" by asking major hospitals and the union representing many of their workers to participate in discussions and forge partnerships to improve patient care. Photo credit: iStockphoto.com.
February 24, 2014

SALEM, Ore. - It's an unusual approach to improving health care and perhaps lowering costs, as Gov. John Kitzhaber asks the state's major hospital systems and the union that represents thousands of hospital and clinic workers to sit down and find some common ground.

The union, SEIU Local 49, had filed five ballot measures calling for caps on hospital executives' pay, more charity care for the poor, and making prices public so people can comparison-shop for services. For now, according to union president Meg Niemi, it will put them on hold in hopes that the talks will deliver better health-care quality and transparency.

"I would say we have not always seen eye to eye with the Hospital Association or individual hospitals, and so, I don't think it's going to be easy to figure out how we get around those tensions," she cautioned. "But we do think that it would be the better option to take a high road on how we work together."

The governor has said he's suggesting these talks to avoid what he calls a "multimillion-dollar ballot measure fight" this fall.

Five big hospital and health-care systems and the Oregon Nurses Association will all be part of the talks. Niemi said SEIU wants to ensure that its front-line hospital workers also have a voice, but the format for the discussions is still up in the air.

"You know, we need to pull together with the governor's staff and really design that: What is this process going to look like, who's going to be there, how do we make sure it's productive? What expertise is needed in the room? So, we'll be working on that but haven't gotten to that detail yet," she said.

Niemi said she is convinced the consumer-oriented ballot measures would have passed handily, and that if the talks aren't productive, SEIU will be ready to resurrect them in 2016.

The governor has said the goal of the discussions is to make faster progress toward the "Triple Aim" of reducing per-capita health-care costs, and improving people's health and the quality of hospital care.

The ballot measure proposals can be viewed at SEIU49.org.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR