Project Mayhem, Part IV: Lies, Damned Lies and Things Unions Say

Cincinnati firefighter Doug Stern, frontman for union efforts to defeat public sector labor reforms in Ohio, is apparently unable to explain the health costs he has been describing to millions of Ohio voters.

For most of the past year, the Washington Big Labor-funded $7 million “grassroots” union front group We Are Ohio (WAO) has been campaigning for a no vote on Issue 2 come November 8th, which would repeal Senate Bill 5, passed in March by the Ohio legislature and signed by Governor John Kasich. The bill asks public sector unions to contribute 15 percent towards their health care premiums, of which they currently pay 5 percent. This unfair bill would have them pay only 8 percentage points less than the average that the private sector pays. (Unfair, of course, for the unions. Somehow.)

Last month, WAO featured Stern in its famous “Emergency” ad:

That wasn’t the last we heard from Stern. In a recent piece in The Columbus Dispatch, Joe Vardon writes:

“Cincinnati firefighter Doug Stern, who starred in We Are Ohio’s first TV commercial, took on provisions of Senate Bill 5 that require all public employees to pay at least 15 percent of their health-care premiums…Stern said that as a Cincinnati firefighter, he [already] pays 20 percent toward his health-care premiums.”

Days later, the Dispatch ran a correction:

“Cincinnati firefighters pay 5 percent of their health-insurance premiums. Because of incorrect information provided to The Dispatch, a story on Page B1 of Wednesday’s Metro & State section included a different percentage.”

So I approached Stern at a Cincinnati Teamsters anti-Issue 2 rally (with Jimmy Hoffa also in attendance) to give him an opportunity to explain the discrepancy. Unfortunately, within 81 seconds, Stern multiplied it by four new discrepancies: an incoherent alibi about his statement; an imaginatively penumbraic interpretation of SB 5; a misunderstanding of who is actually paying his medical bills; and an apparent confusion over what his own contract says. I was only trying to make it easier for him.

Interestingly, after the interview, Stern warned me against releasing it unless I was an opponent of Issue 2. Yeah, no.

So he was referring to costs, not premiums. To explain: A premium is what is paid annually in order to maintain a health care plan. The cost is the co-pay of medical expenditures. Fair enough. But the Dispatch was not the only outlet to which he had said this. Tom Troy of The Toledo Blade also reported:

“Mr. Stern said it’s not true that unions have been unwilling to negotiate. He said he and his fellow firefighters pay 20 percent of their health insurance in Cincinnati and haven’t had a pay raise in two years.”

I spoke with Troy, who advised me that Stern did, to his credit, appear to be speaking about cost, not premium, at the time.

However, Business Journal Daily also quoted Stern in a separate instance:

“That would be wonderful if we could get back” to paying 15% on health insurance, [Stern] added, pointing out that he pays 20% in Cincinnati.”

Firstly, if SB 5 brings the premium contribution up from 5 to 15 percent, and he was only talking about the cost, why did Stern find it relevant to invoke that 15 percent number?

Secondly, Stern says “[Section] 4117.08 [of SB 5] states that state employees pay 15 percent of the premiums. People other than employed by the state pay 15 percent of their overall costs.” He is likely trying to distinguish 4117.08(E) from 124.82(H) which employs the phrase “costs of the premium assessed” for state employees, while 4117.08 uses the phrase “cost paid for health care benefits.” His implication is that state law establishes two different standards for state and local employees. But 4117.08 does not distinguish between state and local, thus the same standard applies. So that doesn’t work.

Thirdly, Stern told me he pays “100 percent of the first $600.” We have to assume, for now, that he is paying in-network. In-network means a list of approved doctors and hospitals covered by the given insurance company. Non-network denotes doctors and hospitals not covered by it. So if he pays only the first $600 per the in-network deductible, he then pays 20 percent of the next $12,000 to a maximum of $3000 out of pocket. Were he non-network, the deductible would be $1200, thus he would then pay 50 percent of $9,600 to a maximum of $6000. So far, so good.

Yet he then suggests he is paying non-network by claiming he “pick[s] up 20 percent of [his] costs up to $6000 [emphasis mine],” when factually, were he paying the 20 percent, that would be the in-network plan in which the maximum out-of-pocket is $3000. The $6000 is the non-network maximum wherein he would be paying 50 percent, which simply takes him to the maximum faster.

Stern then doubles down on the notion that he is suddenly paying non-network, when he rhetorically asks me: “If [the contractual] 5 percent of my premium is $50, 15 percent would be $150 a month. Right? So what’s more? $150 a month? Or paying that premium plus all of my out of pocket up to $6000?” Alright, fine. But if he is now paying non-network, why was he only paying the in-network co-pay 48 seconds ago?

Here is the fourth discrepancy: He is implying he will be forced to pay $150 on top of out-of-pocket, claiming that his cost contributions “are what save the city money.” No, they don’t. That $150 would certainly go towards the city, but the out-of-pocket goes to the insurance company — which in Cincinnati’s case is Anthen Blue Access Plan — to cover the overall costs. So how precisely does it save the city money?

Stern’s numbers suggest he does not appear to know who is picking up 80 percent of his costs, and whether he is paying in-network or non-network. The contract clearly distinguishes between the two. One could assume this is a forgivable mix-up between in-network and non-network, but being that he claims to be routinely, physically paying these numbers, such a mix-up suddenly ceases to appear so forgivable.

In conclusion, Stern assured me, “I know what the contract says.” And this is where he would be 100 percent right — if only he knew what the contract says.

WAO has been spending $1.92 million on television ads including those featuring Stern, while its rival, Building a Better Ohio, bought only $741,000 worth of ads in the same markets (one of which WAO has almost successfully censored). Yet spokeswoman Melissa Fazekas recently stated, “We are spending a significant amount of money on the airwaves…But we do think we’ll be outspent at the end of the day.” Sure, Melissa — when the numbers don’t validate your class warfare narrative, just say they will.

It is only fair to wonder why WAO is spending so much money to preserve the status quo, when they and Doug Stern manifestly do not know what the status quo is. Perhaps they would embrace the relatively minor changes in SB 5, if only they knew what SB 5 was relatively changing.

Stern told me “it’s a wording issue.” And he is right. If it is words that are causing all these issues with accuracy, perhaps the best strategy for maintaing the anti-Issue 2 case is to stop saying them.

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