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Oregon Guard/Police Unions Sue over Healthcare Surcharges

"It's basically financial extortion," declared Oregon Department of Corrections Sergeant Michael Van Patten, of a new surcharge of up to $420 a year for state employees who do not participate in Oregon's new health program.

In January 2012, Oregon implemented its Health Engagement Model which encourages state employees to adopt healthier lifestyles and offers professional help to do so. If the program is successful, consultants expect the state will avoid millions of dollars in insurance costs.

To ensure that an estimated 7,500 employees participate in the program, in January 2012, the state began hitting non-compliant employees with a surcharge of $20 to $35 a month. The state expects to bring in a total of $2.7 million in such surcharges in 2012 alone.

"There's nothing wrong about being more healthy. Nobody is disagreeing," said Van Patten, who is president of the Association of Oregon Corrections Employees (AOCE) union. "It's how they implement it."

"The communications weren't as crisp and clean as we would all have liked," admits Sean Kolman, Chairman of the State Public Employees' Benefit Board. But a committee of state managers and union leaders appointed by the Board say the problem is much more than miscommunication. The new surcharge comes on top of state workers having "been asked to pick up a portion of their health care premium, take furlough days, endure a wage freeze, and face unprecedented workloads," the Committee wrote in a report. On average, employees are now paying $53.59 a month as their portion of their health care premiums.

The committee recommended that the state suspend the new surcharge for a year. And to let the Board know they meant business, on February 13, 2012, AOCE and the Oregon State Police Officers Association (OSPOA) brought federal suit, claiming that the surcharges and demands for medical information are illegal. They seek to enjoin enforcement of both.

Refusing to be bullied, on February 16, 2012, the Benefits Board infuriated State workers by voting to immediately impose the surcharges, in an attempt to rein in premium costs.

OSPOA president Darrin Phillips said troopers should be paid an incentive for good health, not be punished for being unhealthy. According to Phillips, troopers are worried about what may be down the road now that the state is poking its nose into troopers' health.

"As this progresses, they may get more and more stringent," said Phillips. "If you can't start meeting health standards, then you're going to start paying extra for your health care. The fear is this is just the tip of the iceberg."

Source: The Oregonian

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