News Feature | January 29, 2014

Supreme Court Hearing Landmark Healthcare Case

Christine Kern

By Christine Kern, contributing writer

Supreme Court Statue

Home health care worker case regarding “fair share” fees could have ripple effect across healthcare industry

In a landmark case, the Supreme Court began hearing testimony January in the case of Harris v. Quinn.  The legal issues, according to the SCOTUS blog, are “(1) Whether a state may, consistent with the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, compel personal care providers to accept and financially support a private organization as their exclusive representative to petition the state for greater reimbursements from its Medicaid programs; and (2) whether the lower court erred in holding that the claims of providers in the Home Based Support Services Program are not ripe for judicial review.”

Pamela H. Harris, an in-home personal care assistant and the named plaintiff in the suit, is one of the nearly 27,000 healthcare workers who could be affected in Illinois. She is represented by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which files lawsuits against unions and whose mission is “to eliminate coercive union power and compulsory unionism abuses through strategic litigation, public information, and education programs.” Unions counter that the Foundation systematically tries to weaken or eliminate collective bargaining around the country.

“(The plaintiffs) want to destroy things for working people in the U.S.,” said Keith Kelleher, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Illinois. If the court rules in the plaintiffs’ favor, he said “it would be catastrophic.”

Illinois home care workers who service frail senior citizens and people with disabilities are represented by the union SEIU Healthcare Illinois and Indiana. As a “fair share” state, Illinois does not require workers to join the union; however, non-members must still pay “fair share” fees to help cover the costs of union negotiating. Approximately 40 percent of Illinois home health workers are not union members, some because they are new and haven’t yet signed up. The “fair share” fees are about a third less than union dues.

The plaintiffs argue that  the “fair share” provision violates their First Amendment rights, and that the home care workers are not true public employees because individual consumers — not the state — have the right to hire and fire them.

The Cato Institute, which filed a brief in the case, says, “The forcible unionization of home health care workers serves none of the compelling purposes for public-sector unionization that have been articulated by the Supreme Court.”

According to the Union, many seniors and people with disabilities believe that the union benefits everyone, because higher wages have attracted better workers and improved the services to the point that many people who would otherwise be forced into nursing homes are able to stay in their homes.

“Elements of stability are good wages and benefits,” said Gary Arnold, public relations coordinator for Access Living, a nonprofit disability rights and service organization. “You get better [home care worker] candidates, and you get people to stay on the job. A negative ruling might [weaken] the heart of what has been built up over the past decade.”

Approximately 20 friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed, including a friend-of-the court brief in support of the union positions by the American Association of People with Disabilities, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, the National Council on Aging and other disability and senior organizations. Other briefs include the brief filed for Patricia H. Harris, the brief filed by Gov. Pat Quinn, and the Cato Institute brief.

The plaintiff’s claims were dismissed by the District Court and the 7th District U.S. Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court has two issues to resolve: first, whether home care workers who are not in the union may be assessed “fair share” fees and, second, whether the state was correct in declaring them to be state employees.

The Supreme Court’s ruling, when it is issued, has the potential to create a ripple-effect for home healthcare.

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