With two weeks to go in contract talks, Allina Health and its nurses are deadlocked over the issue of health insurance and whether nurses should give up union-protected health plans and switch to plans that all Allina employees receive.

Leaders of the Minnesota Nurses Association on Wednesday held a picket near Allina's Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis to curry support — noting they had given up many other benefits in past negotiations to preserve their health plans.

"We take care of our patients," said Angela Becchetti, a rapid response nurse at Abbott who serves on the union's negotiating team. "We also need to be able to to take care of ourselves."

Allina has bargained in recent years at the same time as the competing Fairview, HealthEast and Park Nicollet hospital systems, but broke ranks because of what it viewed as costly and outdated union health plans for its 5,000 nurses. The other systems in January agreed with their 7,000 nurses on three-year contracts that increased pay and left other benefits unchanged.

"The union has been trying to paint these insurance plans that everyone else [at Allina] has … as terrible deals. That's simply not true," said Allina spokesman David Kanihan. "They work well for the 30,000 people who have them, including myself."

Negotiating has allowed unions in many industries to maintain health plans with traditional copays, low deductibles and broad doctor networks while companies have otherwise shifted toward narrow networks and "high-deductible" plans that offer low premiums but make workers more accountable for their health care purchases.

Kanihan stressed that one of Allina's preferred options is not a high-deductible plan; it achieves lower costs in part through financial incentives for workers to use Allina doctors and facilities for care.

Tuesday's negotiating session had been considered a last chance for agreement before the current contract expires on June 1. But the two sides agreed to more talks, including a session Thursday. Kanihan said Allina "unequivocally" has no plans for a lockout or other job action.

Six years ago, Twin Cities nurses staged a one-day strike over a demand for staffing ratios to prevent them from being overwhelmed with too many patients. The hospitals hired replacements for the day.

Ratios were dropped when the hospitals offered other concessions, and did not surface as a contract issue three years ago — when the union sought to have them enacted instead through legislation.

The last prolonged nursing strike in the Twin Cities was in 2001, when Fairview nurses at the University of Minnesota and Southdale hospitals walked out for 23 days.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744