Allina Health and its striking nurses challenged each other's staying power on Monday as the nurses' walkout reached its third week without a deal — or further talks — in sight.

Allina reported that more than 500 of the 4,800 union nurses have called to say they want to return to work at the five affected hospitals. Meanwhile, the union said it received a report that an intensive care unit closed at Allina's flagship hospital, Abbott Northwestern in Minneapolis, amid turnover in replacement nurses.

Each side said the other bears responsibility to restart talks, which began in February and have deadlocked over health insurance.

Allina spokesman David Kanihan accused the union of emphasizing public relations over collective bargaining: "We believe [negotiations] will be most effective if both sides have a spirit of collaboration, which the union does not seem to have today," he said in a prepared statement.

Kanihan acknowledged that an ICU unit at Abbott closed to new patients over the weekend because of the number of patients and the severity of their conditions, but said the temporary closure was not uncommon or strike-related.

Union officials have questioned Allina's figures on the number of nurses crossing picket lines, saying their own count after a temporary strike in June was substantially lower than what Allina reported. The Minnesota Nurses Association has a hardship fund of more than $4 million and is beginning to process requests from nurses struggling with the loss of income during the strike.

On Monday, some two dozen DFL-elected officials threw their support behind the nurses, including U.S. Rep Keith Ellison, a St. Paul City Council member and more than a dozen state lawmakers, who spoke to picketing nurses outside Abbott and accused Allina of inflexibility.

"I want Allina to get back to the table. It's time — it's past time," said Rep. Linda Slocumb, DFL-Richfield, who said she delayed a triple bypass at Abbott this summer so it wouldn't take place during the first nursing strike in June. "These people are going without salaries. Come on!"

Battle over health plans

The dispute initially centered on Allina's demand to move the nurses from four costly union-backed health plans to its corporate health insurance. Eventually, negotiators for the nurses agreed to drop the union plans, but asked for some control of the policies and assurances that the benefit levels of the corporate plans wouldn't erode.

Allina rejected that idea, but the compromise appealed to the DFL lawmakers, who argued that a contract should lock in health benefits and that nurses should receive rich health coverage given their high risks of on-the-job illnesses and injuries.

"If a nurse in the health care industry can't get quality health care from a health care company, we're all in trouble," said St. Paul City Councilman Chris Tolbert.

Also under strike are United Hospital in St. Paul, Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids, Unity Hospital in Fridley and the Phillips Eye Institute in Minneapolis.

Appeal to nurses

Allina has disputed the union's contention that its corporate plans are substandard. Two have high deductibles but low premiums, while a third achieves cost savings through financial incentives to use Allina providers.

In a full-page ad in the Star Tribune on Sunday, Allina Chief Executive Dr. Penny Wheeler appealed to nurses to return to work. She defended the health benefits Allina is offering and pointed out that on Oct. 1 the strikers will temporarily lose their health insurance and have to buy much more expensive coverage. "Allina Health is in a stronger position when all of our gifted nurses are providing care," Wheeler wrote.

DFL lawmakers also expressed frustration at the cost of the strike, given that a substantial portion of Allina's operating revenue comes from state-funded Medical Assistance programs for the poor. An Allina financial report indicated the first one-week strike in June cost more than $20 million. The second strike has at least doubled that tab.

"Allina has already spent more on this strike than the money they claim they are going to save" by eliminating the union plans, said state Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville.