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Janitors Still Sweeping through Downtown

Health: Care?

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Technically, Justice for Janitors Day was still 48 hours away. But members and supporters of the Service Employees International Union got a head start on June 13, staging their largest protest yet against rising health-care costs.

The Downtown rally, about 250 strong, was the latest in a series that began in April, when 160 protesters marched through Oakland to decry planned 75 percent increases in health-insurance premiums for University of Pittsburgh employees, including cleaners, maintenance people and groundskeepers represented by the SEIU. For the most-popular family health plan, monthly premiums at Pitt would rise from $110 to $192. Demonstrators said many of the janitors, among the lowest-paid workers covered by the UPMC Health Plan, would have to drop their coverage and perhaps seek state-funded CHIP coverage for their kids.

But on June 13 the union aimed at a bigger target. At the State Office Building, speakers including state Rep. Don Walko (D-Brighton Heights) called for a state investigation into what he labeled Pennsylvania's health-care crisis. Then the protesters -- making noise and carrying placards with blown-up photos of SEIU members' children --marched a couple of blocks to Fifth Avenue Place, home to Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield headquarters, where they circled the block chanting before taking a turn through the upscale shopping mall on the ground floor.

Pitt employees are not covered by Highmark. But critics blame the rising cost of health care in the region on a pricing contract signed last year by Highmark and UPMC, which dampened competition between the two health-care giants. Pitt janitors are not the only ones with health-care grievances. Earlier this month, health-care workers represented by SEIU at Canonsburg General Hospital held a three-day strike to protest issues including substantial increases in health-care costs. And this fall, the contracts of 1,000 Downtown janitors represented by SEIU will be up for renewal, with health care expected to be a major issue.

Supporters of reform note that the issue can't be solved just locally. State Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-Lawrenceville) told demonstrators UPMC "should hang their heads in shame" over skyrocketing premiums, and raised the specter of bloated CHIP rolls and overburdened emergency rooms. But he ackowledged that local institutions, and even state government, can't do much on their own. "Fundamentally there needs to be a single-payer system," says Ferlo. "We need to fight for national health insurance."

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