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Union begins signature drive for hospital pricing ballot initiative

SACRAMENTO — A healthcare workers union will launch its signature-gathering effort for a hospital pricing ballot measure Thursday, marking the latest front in a looming initiative fight that will pit labor against hospitals. 

Thursday's event in Sacramento is the latest in a series of kickoff events SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West has held throughout to state to start its signature drive. This time, they're gathering right at their adversary's front door: outside the headquarters of the California Hospital Assn.

The union has been highlighting inflated prices for products and services at California's hospitals, such as a charge of nearly $40 for lip balm at Memorial Hospital in Sacramento. The ballot measure would prohibit private hospitals from charging more than 25% above the true cost of patient care.

"The days of charging $18 for a single aspirin and $230 for crutches have got to end, and we're confident Californians will agree with us when this initiative comes before voters in the fall," said Dave Regan, SEIU-UHW's president, in a statement released before Thursday's event. 

The hospital pricing measure is one of two the union is pushing for the November ballot; the second initiative would limit compensation for executives at nonprofit hospitals to $450,000 per year.

Jan Emerson-Shea, vice president for external affairs for the California Hospital Assn., said the union's initiatives were "dangerous, dishonest and deceptive."

She said the hospital association had calculated that the pricing measure would pull $12 billion in annual revenue from the state's hospitals, causing the facilities to cut back on the services they offer. (The labor union has a lower estimate of the measure's effect on hospitals: a $3.4-billion decline in revenue). 

The association has said the union is using the initiatives as leverage in their negotiations with the state's hospitals around organizing efforts.

Sean Wherley, a union spokesman, said the ballot measures were not bargaining chips.

"This is purely an effort to rein in runaway healthcare costs in California," he said. 

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melanie.mason@latimes.com

Twitter: @melmason

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