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CHA celebrated Nurses Week in early May with a reception honoring nurse achievements over the past year. (Photo: Cambridge Health Alliance)

CHA celebrated Nurses Week in early May with a reception honoring nurse achievements over the past year. (Photo: Cambridge Health Alliance)

Cambridge Health Alliance could lose more than 100 nurses this summer because of sharp reductions in retirement benefits that go into effect Aug. 7. The health care system is taking steps to fill any gaps and doesn’t expect services to be disrupted, a spokesman said.

Nurses who retire after Aug. 6 will pay 50 percent of employer-sponsored health insurance premiums instead of the 10 percent employee contribution now in effect, giving the Alliance substantial savings on future retirement obligations. More than 100 nurses are eligible to retire before the change; the Alliance doesn’t know how many will leave, spokesman David Cecere said.

The issue emerged into public view during a rare public comment session at the Alliance’s monthly board of trustees meeting Tuesday. Two nurses begged trustees to relax the effective date of the change for employees whose birthdays fall after Aug. 7 so nurses could get the benefit of annual pension increases credited on a worker’s birthday.

As it stands now, nurses who retire before Aug. 7 to keep the current 10 percent health insurance contribution but whose birthday comes after that date will lose the pension increase. Trustees did not act on the request.

Long legal battle

The Alliance, which is losing millions of dollars, won the right to increase nurses’ post-retirement health insurance contributions after a long legal battle fought mostly out of the public eye and which the Alliance seemed to have lost twice. It started when the Alliance imposed the change unilaterally in 2010 after what appeared to be an impasse in contract negotiations between the health care system and Massachusetts Nurses Association.

The union objected and the state labor board sided with union members, ordering the Alliance to keep the 90 percent-10 percent split and return to talks. A Superior Court Judge upheld the decision in 2011, a ruling that was publicized by the union.

The two sides returned to negotiations and reached agreement on everything but the retiree health insurance issue. Mediation and fact finding didn’t break the logjam. On May 1, the director of the state labor relations department certified that the two sides were hopelessly deadlocked, allowing the Alliance to implement the change.

Other CHA unions had agreed to the 50-50 split for retiree health insurance, while the nurses had held out, Cecere said.

Other nursing models

Cecere said the health care system is working with the union to allow some nurses who retire to continue to work as “per diem” nurses on a different payroll – nurses who work by the day rather than as permanent employees. “This will provide coverage while allowing nurses who choose to continue working to do so,” he said. It was not clear whether those nurses would be eligible for pension increases if their birthdays fell after Aug. 7.

The Alliance is also trying to find permanent and temporary nurses, Cecere said.

The trustees scheduled the public comment session because of “the changes occurring at CHA,” Cecere said. The system is projected to lose $28.1 million this year, and its leaders have been looking for cost savings, including a recent decision to close the psychiatric emergency service at Cambridge Hospital and see all mentally ill emergency patients in the main emergency room. The plan has drawn criticism from family members of patients, nurses, advocates and city councillors.

The trustees last allowed public comment on Feb. 10, 2009, when the board was voting on reorganizing services, including changing Somerville Hospital from inpatient to outpatient care, Cecere said.