The Senate sent a critically important bipartisan message Thursday night.  We’re on the wrong track in health care and we need to correct it. Here’s why.

I make my living as a cook at the University of Hartford. My colleagues and I are employed by a subcontractor and we make pretty good wages, but it’s not enough. Comprehensive medical benefits are essential both for our personal and financial health. Lately, we’ve had to work extra hard to hold on to them.

We’re members of UNITE HERE! Local 217. In our contract negotiations in 2010 our employer told us the cost of our Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan was going up 48 percent. They wanted us to pay a lot more to keep our good health insurance.

So we got to work. We switched to a non-profit union health and welfare “Taft-Hartley” plan called UNITE HERE Health. But because that plan was based on just our 80 members, costs continued to rise. So in 2011, UNITE HERE Health created a national plan to pool food service workers across the country, and we joined. Switching to the national plan saved our employer money and allowed us to keep our benefits affordable. About 1,000 Connecticut members have joined the plan with thousands more across the country.

The plan keeps costs down because we work hard at it. The key is our “1, 2, 3” program. Trained leaders from our union sit down with members and talk with them about their health and the cost of our benefits.

First, we have people fill out a health survey.

Next, we make sure everyone picks a primary care doctor. Emergency room costs are through the roof, and people should only go there when it’s a real emergency.

Finally, we help people set up primary care appointments and encourage them to get biometric tests that give a baseline health picture, so our care coordinators can help work on problems.

We’ve saved ourselves and our employer thousands of dollars and are healthier for it. But health costs are still rising too fast. So I’ve been at the Capitol with other members every week telling our representatives that they need to do what only they can do: get control over hospital prices.

Hospitals are a third of health care spending. Nationally we spend about $1 trillion a year on hospitals (see Table 06). Connecticut hospitals give good care. The problem is, some of them are gobbling up their competitors so they can control the market and set prices.

Don’t believe it? Ask someone who lives near New Haven if they go to a hospital that’s not part of Yale-New Haven. Ask them if their doctor has been bought up by the hospital.

The big hospitals — especially Yale-New Haven and Hartford — are now “systems” with several hospitals. The Yale system made $205 million in profit in 2014. Study after study tells us that when hospitals merge, prices go up and we have less choice. Before our eyes, a few monopolies are carving up our state. Systems are buying up smaller community hospitals and independent medical practices, and then charging higher prices.

But help is on the way. The legislature is looking at proposals that would level the playing field and reduce costs — “1, 2, 3.”

One would ban the outrageous extra “facility fees” that hospitals slap on our bills when they buy a doctor’s practice. Why should we pay an average of 80 percent more just because a hospital changes the sign on the door?

A second proposal would bring hospital prices and quality into the open. Insurance companies and individuals all pay different prices for the same care at the same hospital. But it’s all secret. Nobody knows what anybody else is paying. It’s just crazy. We should be able to decide which hospital to use based on how much it’s going to cost and how good the care is. We can’t do either right now. When we can do both, prices will come down, and quality will go up.

The third proposal would get costs under control. Massachusetts has an independent commission that sets a statewide goal for cost growth and works with health plans and hospitals to make sure they hit the goal. In its first year health costs only went up 2.3 percent, way below the goal. We need to start putting those strategies to work in Connecticut. Every day we don’t, we waste money we can’t afford to lose, and get care without knowing anything about its quality.

At UNITE HERE!, we’re doing a lot to control costs and improve our health. But we can’t do it on our own. We need a fair health care marketplace. Only the legislature can do that, and now it’s up to the House. There’s not much time left — let’s pass S.B. 811 and get health care on track.

Earl Baskerville is First Vice President of Local 217 Unite Here!

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