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Originally published Tuesday, December 7, 2010 at 3:49 PM

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Gov. Gregoire caves to union on health-care premiums

By boosting state employees' share of health-care premiums by a mere 3 percent, Gov. Chris Gregoire missed an opportunity to bring those contributions in line with the private sector and save the state more money for other needs.

GOV. Chris Gregoire has made a deeply disappointing deal with the Washington Federation of State Employees.

For years, state employees have paid just 12 percent of their health-insurance premiums, including coverage of spouses and children. For years, the 12-percent share has been the target of critics, including this newspaper. We have continually pointed out it is less than half of what private employees typically pay. As the state has become shorter of funds, raising that 12 percent employee contribution has become imperative.

Last summer, the state undertook to negotiate an increase in the ongoing contract, which could be extended through June 30, 2012. Gregoire asked the union to agree to a 26 percent cost share. Last week, she settled for 15 percent. In other words, she tried for an increase of 14 percentage points and won 3. This piddling increase, amounting to $27 a month, will be effective Jan. 1, 2012 — 13 months from now.

The union made no other concessions — in co-pays, deductibles or any other mechanisms to slow the increase in the state's spending on health care.

Even the increase in employee share from 12 to 15 percent is partly illusory, because there will be a new third source of money, the insurance reserves of the Public Employees Benefits Board. This source is not part of the calculation of the 15 percent, which means the actual employee share of health care will be less than that.

It also means the state is paying for part of its operating expenses by draining out insurance reserves, which are neither created for this purpose nor suited to it.

The union called the agreement "a significant victory," which, from its viewpoint, it was. "Your team held tough," the union said, "and the governor's team got the message."

We were hoping the governor's team would hold tough and the union would get the message. No such luck. Not with this governor. She has been supported by the state employee unions, and she beats them with a feather.

The union statement also complained about hostility from "some politicians and editorial writers." We recognize ourselves; this page has been calling for a change in the 88-12 split for a long time and in certain quarters has made itself notorious. Which will continue. As of today, we begin a call for a change in the 85-15 split, increasing the employee share.

The reason we do this is not because we are mean. Indeed, that word more clearly describes the winners in this negotiation. They have put their interests ahead of the lower-income people who rely on the Basic Health Plan, children's Medicaid, rural public schools and the many other state programs for the vulnerable. Because state employees have contributed less than expected, these programs are likely to be cut more or eliminated.

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