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County settles dispute over doctor benefits

The board agrees to pay a total of $10 million to 670 physicians who were denied compensation when they unionized.

January 24, 2007|Jack Leonard | Times Staff Writer

Ending a legal battle with doctors employed by Los Angeles County, the Board of Supervisors agreed Tuesday to pay the physicians more than $10 million to compensate for benefits denied after they voted to unionize, a union official said.

Under the agreement, which was approved unanimously in a closed session, about 670 doctors will receive an average of $15,000 for lost health and other benefits between 2002 and 2004, said Joe Bader, regional administrator for the Union of American Physicians and Dentists of Southern California.

As part of their old benefits package, the doctors had been given up to 19% of their salaries toward health insurance, vacation and sick time but could opt to pocket the cash, Bader said.

But the county argued that doctors became ineligible for that benefits package when they voted to join the union in 1999. The doctors were enrolled in a less lucrative plan used by other unionized county employees.

"The Board of Supervisors decided to punish the doctors for unionizing," Bader said. "The county could have settled this ... very early on."

But County Counsel Raymond G. Fortner Jr. said the decision by supervisors in 2001 to switch benefits was part of a long-standing county policy on benefits for union members.

That policy was legal, Fortner said, until the following year. Then the Legislature responded to union complaints by making it illegal for large agencies to disqualify employees from health benefit plans based on whether they are unionized. To ensure that the physicians union was covered by the new law, legislators made it retroactive to 2001.

In 2003, county doctors voted to withdraw from the union, blaming it for losing their lucrative benefits plan, Bader said. As a result, the county allowed the doctors to return to their old plan starting in January 2004.

Meanwhile, the union sued the county, alleging that the policy illegally discriminated against union members. In 2005, an appellate court ruled that the new law meant the county had to repay physicians the difference between the old and new benefit plans.

Bader described the settlement as vindication for the union, which he said has contacted doctors recently as part of another organizing attempt.

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