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Originally published Sunday, August 22, 2010 at 4:01 PM

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On health care, state employees contributions must come closer to the private sector

Washington employees should pay more for their health-insurance coverage, argues The Seattle Times editorial board.

ON Tuesday state negotiators will face public-employee unions over the issue of medical benefits. Last time they did this, they gave away the store. They let employees pay the same share of premium for medical coverage as before, even though the state was in a deep financial hole. This time negotiators have to be tough.

The central issue is how much each side pays for health-insurance premiums. Currently, employees pay 12 percent, and the state pays 88 percent. It is a sweet deal, but the state cannot afford it unless it raises other charges — the coinsurance, the deductibles and the out-of-pocket maximum — in a big way. Some of the figures double.

If those other charges are to stay the same, the employees' share of monthly premium has to go to 25 percent.

Twenty-five percent is more than double the share employees pay now. It is not, however, out of the ballpark. Among public-sector workers nationally, the most common figure is now 25 percent. Among private-sector workers, it is even higher.

The unions want the Legislature to save their benefits by "closing loopholes," which is a nice way of saying "raising taxes." This will not work. The Legislature could raise taxes this year on soft drinks, beer, bottled water, candy and cigarettes because Initiative 960, which imposed a two-thirds rule, was 2 years old and could be suspended by a simple majority. And the Democrats suspended it.

But Initiative 1053, which is on the ballot in November, will reimpose the two-thirds rule. It is almost certain to pass. Democrats will probably also lose some seats. Next January, the new Legislature will be facing a projected deficit of at least $3 billion — 9 percent of the budget — and a two-thirds rule that will be immovable.

The bottom line: State employees will have to pay substantially more for health coverage.

They are not alone. It is happening at other governments, and happened in the private sector long ago. Most private-sector workers who have coverage pay more than 25 percent. It's not because their employers are mean, but because they have only so much money and they have to balance their accounts.

As does the state.

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