Tentative Agreement Reached in Kaiser Dispute

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

In a possible end to a bitter labor dispute, Kaiser Permanente and thousands of registered nurses in Northern California reached a tentative contract agreement Wednesday.

The accord calls for a 12% pay hike over four years and gives nurses a new watchdog role over quality of patient care at the nation's largest HMO, said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Assn.

The agreement would end a two-year struggle in which the CNA has waged a relentless campaign that focused on allegations of poor patient care at Kaiser. The union's effort included "casualty of the day" reports about alleged medical negligence at Kaiser and charges from union officials that Kaiser's cost-containment efforts were harming patient care.

The CNA's campaign was costly to Kaiser, including an estimated $10 million a day when nurses on six occasions launched brief strikes at Kaiser hospitals and clinics. It's less clear how the campaign affected Kaiser's reputation. The HMO's California membership soared last year.

Kaiser spokesman Tom Debley said management is pleased with the agreement, calling it a "win-win" for the nurses and the HMO.

In addition to the pay increase, the agreement would assign 18 registered nurses as "quality liaisons" in the Kaiser system.

"This is the first time you see quality liaisons that weren't management," DeMoro said. "The first time in history the union actually has control over quality liaison positions."

The liaisons would help monitor the quality of care, have access to more internal information pertaining to patient care and staffing issues, and recommend improvements.

CNA said the accord includes no "confidentiality or gag" clauses in which the union agreed to ease up on public criticism of Kaiser.

"One of the reasons we got this [quality liaison stipulation] is so any criticism can come internally and can be redressed," DeMoro said. "I hope we're able to tone down" any criticism.

The CNA will recommend that its 7,500 registered nurses from Fresno to the Oregon border approve the pact, DeMoro said. The nurses, who have been working without a contract since January 1997, will vote during the next three weeks.

"We're quite excited," DeMoro said. "It's been a significant battle, but it was one certainly worth fighting."

DeMoro said the union agreed to move its retirees into Kaiser's Medicare HMO plan and compromised on the issue of allowing new hires in Sacramento and Santa Rosa to start at a lower pay scale.

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