PHOENIX — A California union is funding a bid to persuade Arizona voters to force hospitals here to pay their workers more.

An initiative drive being launched Monday would mandate that everyone working at a hospital get an immediate 5% pay increase if the measure is approved by voters in 2020. There then would be successive 5% pay increases for the following three years.

Rodd McLeod, spokesman for what’s being dubbed the Healthcare Rising Arizona campaign, said that would apply at all levels, including medical staff, nurses, social workers, orderlies and custodians.

With a prior voter-approved state law already mandating a $12-an-hour minimum wage for all workers beginning in January, that would put the base pay for hospital employees after the fourth year at $14.59 an hour.

McLeod said it is in the public interest to raise hospital wages even if it does raise costs for hospitals and, by extension, for patients who do not have insurance.

Higher wages are just part of the campaign financed by the Service Employees International Union.

The initiative, if it makes the ballot and is approved, also would:

  • Put provisions directly into Arizona law to ensure patients can get coverage for prior existing conditions;
  • Impose new infection-control protocols for Arizona hospitals;
  • And institute a more comprehensive law than now exists to protect patients from “surprise” medical bills.

A spokesman for the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association declined to comment.

This isn’t the first ballot foray by the California branch of the union, but McLeod said the fact that this is being proposed and financed by an out-of-state organization — one with a history of doing battle with hospitals — should not deter Arizonans from supporting it.

“We have a health care system that costs a lot of money and doesn’t deliver results that are as good as they could be,” he said.

McLeod said the measure, if enacted, will improve patient protections. He said 99,000 people a year get “serious infections” in hospitals.

Then there’s the issue of surprise billing, with patients admitted to hospitals after checking their insurance coverage, undergoing a procedure and only later finding out that someone on the medical team, like an anesthesiologist, isn’t on hospital staff, isn’t part of the insurer’s “in-network” providers, and doesn’t accept what the insurer is willing to pay.

A new law that took effect earlier this year addresses that, in part, by setting up a procedure for patients and doctors to have disputes resolved.

But McLeod said that still doesn’t prevent the surprise bills in the first place, and only covers disputes of more than $1,000.

Potentially more significant would be language prohibiting insurers from denying coverage for patients with prior existing conditions.

McLeod noted that Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich is among those trying to get federal courts to kill the Affordable Care Act.

If successful, that lawsuit also would wipe out the requirement to cover preexisting conditions, as Congress has yet to enact a replacement if the litigation is successful.

But a key part is the issue of salaries for workers at all levels below management.

“Arizona has among the highest turnover rates for hospital workers in the country,” McLeod said. “You have one in five leaving for jobs in other states or leaving for other professions because the salaries are so low.”

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That, he said, results in worker shortages which, in turn, affect patients.

“I sat in the emergency room waiting for a long time because there’s not enough people to handle the work,” McLeod said.

He said the initiative is related, in part, to the fact that there are fewer and fewer people in unions who can engage in collective bargaining on issues like salaries and working conditions.

“I think there’s a real desire to use creative problem-solving to figure out how to improve people’s standard of living and the quality of health care,” McLeod said.

The California-based United Healthcare Workers West branch of the Service Employees International Union is no stranger to the ballot process in Arizona.

This is the group that sought in 2016 to cap the pay of hospital executives at no more than what the president of the United States is paid, or $450,000 a year.

But after gathering what it claimed was more than 281,000 signatures —far more than needed — the union decided to scrap the effort in the face of challenges to the validity of many signatures.

Last year, the same organization sought to cap the amount dialysis centers can charge patients at no more than 15% above their costs, with a requirement for refunds if profits exceeded that amount.

It also scrapped that effort, with a spokesman saying the union was instead focusing on similar measures in California and Ohio.