Nurses at five Allina Health hospitals plan to conduct a one-week strike, starting June 19 at 7 a.m., amid a contract dispute over health benefits, the Minnesota Nurses Association announced Wednesday evening.

The targeted facilities are Abbott Northwestern Hospital and Phillips Eye Institute in Minneapolis, United Hospital in St. Paul, Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids and Unity Hospital in Fridley.

The walkout by as many as 4,800 hospital nurses would be the first in the Twin Cities since 2010, when the union staged a one-day strike at 14 hospitals. But while that strike was considered a ceremonial show of force over the issue of hospital staffing — a core priority for the union — the upcoming walkout is designed to give Allina a financial incentive to return to the bargaining table and resume talks that broke off abruptly last month.

"We wanted to send a very clear message," said Angela Becchetti, an Abbott Northwestern nurse who is on the union negotiating team. "Seven days is what the negotiating team felt was needed to get the message across."

Earlier this week, in response to a Star Tribune query, an Allina statement from spokesman David ­Kanihan indicated that the health system is prepared to use replacement nurses.

"We have hired an agency and have carefully reviewed the qualifications and licensing requirements of each of the nurses they have recruited to help ensure we can continue meeting patient care needs in the event of a strike," the statement said. "At this time, we anticipate that most of our hospitals will be operating normally."

During the 2010 walkout, Allina and other health systems arranged through staffing agencies to hire thousands of replacement nurses and kept the hospitals open for most forms of care.

Following Wednesday's announcement, the health system issued another statement that expressed a willingness to return to negotiations but didn't back off its key demand of moving the nurses to Allina's own health plans.

"We're prepared to negotiate in good faith and collaborate with the union on a health plan transition and other mutually beneficial issues," it read.

Clash over insurance

The current round of bargaining reached a stalemate after Allina declined to make concessions on other contract issues until the nurses agreed to drop their union-protected health insurance and move instead to the coverage that all other Allina employees receive.

Allina officials argue that the structure of the union health plans, with higher premiums but low or no deductibles, gives nurses little incentive to use the most economical forms of medicine, such as urgent care over the emergency room and generic drugs over brand-name medications. The health system believes it could save $10 million per year by switching the affected nurses over to its other insurance plans.

Union officials countered that the union insurance offers important protection to nurses who are at high risk of infections and injuries due to the nature of their jobs. They also hesitate to give up the hard-fought benefit without Allina making concessions in other areas, such as efforts to improve workplace safety for the nurses and increase staffing.

Becchetti said Allina has not contacted the union to schedule any more negotiating sessions. The last session on May 31 resulted in an Allina contract offer, which would have phased out the union health plans. It was rejected by a vote of the nurses on Monday that also authorized strike planning.

The nurses' contract expired June 1, but its terms remain in effect until the end of the year or a new deal is reached.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744