Nurses for five Allina Health hospitals "overwhelmingly" voted to reject a three-year contract offer from their company that would have eliminated union-backed health insurance and moved nurses to the plans covering other employees.

The Minnesota Nurses Association (MNA) reported the voting results late Monday night, and noted that results at each voting site exceeded the two-thirds majority needed to authorize strike plans at all five hospitals. Nurses at the voting locations said they either wanted to keep their current health benefits or didn't want to surrender them without concessions.

"For me, part of it is about them not wanting to address anything unless we were willing to give up a major benefit," said Eva Phelps, 53, a nurse at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis who specializes in placement of intravenous lines. "I need to see a true effort on their part."

A statement from Allina expressed disappointment at the rejection of an offer that would have increased wages at the same rate that nurses at other Twin Cities health systems accepted earlier this year.

"We ... are ready to meet with the union whenever they are," said the Allina statement, "but any meeting must include a meaningful discussion about the health plans."

The contract affects roughly 4,800 nurses at Abbott Northwestern and the Phillips Eye Institute in Minneapolis, United in St. Paul, Mercy in Coon Rapids, and Unity in Fridley.

An MNA statement said strikes could be "in the coming weeks." The union is required to give Allina a 10-day notice of any such walkout.

While nurses at the Fairview, HealthEast and Children's hospital systems reached three-year contracts earlier this year that left benefits unchanged, Allina leaders decided to take on the issue of health benefits and press its contract nurses to abandon their union health plans.

Allina's leaders say the old-style structure of the union plans — higher premiums but lower or zero deductibles — provides nurses with little financial incentive to save money by going to urgent care instead of the emergency room when appropriate or choosing generic drugs instead of pricey brand-name prescriptions.

"In the interest of providing competitive, really good health coverage to all our employees, we felt like it was time," said Christine Moore, a senior vice president for human resources at Allina.

The health system anticipates saving $10 million per year by moving all of the union nurses to its health plans, which have low premiums but high deductibles.

Allina negotiators insisted that the union agree to drop its health plans as part of any deal, then ended talks in late May and presented an offer that required a phaseout of the plans.

None of the nurses interviewed outside voting locations on Monday had voted in favor of the contract offer.

Phelps said she would take the equivalent of a 15 percent pay cut by switching to an Allina high-deductible plan, when considering the health care costs for her son with special needs and her husband with diabetes.

"With a family plan, it's about $6,000 [out of pocket] before you get to use your insurance," she said.

With four children, and a fifth on the way, nurse Charity Ongeri, 37, had the same concern — especially considering the hazards of illness and injury that nurses face.

"We do work at a hospital where there are infections and we can get exposed," she said.

Health system officials countered that one Allina plan does not include high deductibles, and achieves cost savings instead by limiting its network to Allina providers.

Some nurses were concerned about surrendering the health plans without anything in exchange.

Top issues for the nurses include adequate staffing, and safety measures to address the rising tide of workplace injuries and violence in hospitals.

"I work on a very physical, hands-on unit," said Beth Gauthier, 35, an inpatient rehabilitation nurse at Abbott. "We need all the staff we can get."

The last contract expired June 1, but it remains in effect and nurses continue to work under its terms.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744