Ohio nurses win insurance pricing arbitration against University of Cincinnati Medical Center

In a big win for part-time nurses employed at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, an arbitrator has ruled that a unilateral change to their insurance rates violated the collective bargaining agreement with the local Ohio Nurses Association chapter and the AFT. The arbitration concluded that U.C. Medical Center breached contractual obligations by increasing insurance rates for part-time nurses.

University of Cincinnati Medical Center
University of Cincinnati Medical Center

ONA represents 1,450 registered nurses at the Medical Center, 300 of whom work part time. The issue arose in 2020 when U.C. Medical Center raised insurance rates for its part-time nursing staff, even though all nurses were entitled to the same insurance rates according to the contract. The decision to increase rates for part-time nurses drew objections from union membership. 

The union argued that part-timers were unfairly targeted and expressed concern about the substantial increases, with part-time nurses facing up to 60 percent hikes in healthcare costs and premiums, says Kelly Hickman-Begley, vice president of the Registered Nurses Association of UCMC, the chapter represented by ONA. The hospital defended its actions by claiming it was following market trends.

RNA leaders initiated a grievance process, citing a breach of the contract's benefit provisions. Despite facing delays in the arbitration process, the recent ruling favored the RNA, with the arbitrator mandating a reversal of the insurance rate increase. Throughout the three-year process, part-time nurses bore the brunt of the exorbitant rates imposed by the hospital. Some nurses sought alternative positions, either full-time or non-benefit positions, while others endured the financial burden.

The arbitration decision brings relief to affected nurses. ONA has received notice that the hospital will issue reimbursement for the past three years on Jan. 12, 2024. The hospital says that all part-time employees systemwide will receive back pay for the insurance increase and have their insurance rates adjusted accordingly. The arbitrator will oversee the implementation process for the next 60 days to ensure the hospital complies with the ruling.

Michelle Thoman, a part-time nurse and RNA member, talks about the decision's impact during the COVID-19 pandemic and calls the rate hike a betrayal: “This increase in the midst of COVID made a scary and unpredictable time more difficult and created significant financial burdens, especially for nurses who carried insurance for their entire families,” says Thoman. “The arbitration decision of reversal of the increase will allow me to reconsider my family's insurance options,” she says, adding that reimbursement of the overage pay to all part-time nurses will be beneficial.  

Hickman-Begley views this victory as a timely boost for the union, coinciding with upcoming contract negotiations. She believes the win demonstrates the power of unity and solidarity, and it is fostering increased interest from nurses in joining the organizing committee and negotiating team. She is optimistic that this success will set a precedent for building a stronger, more unified union. “People are excited. They see that when we work together, we can get something done,” says Hickman-Begley. “Like every good union, we have good contract language, and in this case, it’s helped us to right a wrong for a good portion of our members.”

[Adrienne Coles]