Fed up with what they say are increasing health care costs from AtlantiCare, the largest union for casino employees plans to open its own medical facility in the resort Jan. 1.

Representatives of Local 54 of UNITE-HERE made the announcement at a rally at Brighton Park on the Boardwalk Wednesday. The event drew about 200 union members who cheered the leaders’ plea for the area’s largest health care company to lower its costs.

The planned facility would provide wellness seminars and primary health care as well as other services such as blood drawings, physical therapy, chiropractric and pediatrics.

Before the rally, a dozen union representatives delivered petitions signed by 5,500 members to AtlantiCare’s offices Wednesday, but Paul Smith, an employee of the Taj Mahal, said they were told to leave because the facility was for customers.

“What are we?” he asked the crowd, which responded with applause.

Bob McDevitt, union president, said the union has its own health care system, UNITE-HERE HEALTH, which provides health care coverage for its roughly 13,500 members that work for 12 of the resort’s casinos except for Revel Casino-Hotel.

McDevitt said in 2004 the cost to employers for health care was $2.40 per hour worked. Now the figure is $5.30.

Health care costs are up everywhere, but McDevitt said AtlantiCare’s rising costs amount to about one-third of the per-hour increase — far more than any other local health care system.

In a letter to AtlantiCare CEO David Tilton, Local 54 claimed that the company’s prices are higher than the New Jersey average in 92 of the 100 most common inpatient services. The union cited data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to support its claims.

“If AtlantiCare wants to serve the people of Atlantic County, you will bring your prices more in line with the state average. Doing so would benefit not only the members of Local 54, but everyone who needs affordable healthcare in Atlantic County,” the letter concludes.

Pleasantville resident Irma Dominguez, an employee of Harrah’s Atlantic City Resort and Casino, said she had surgery in 2009 and was shocked to find it would cost a third more — about $20,000 — to have the procedure at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center City Campus in Atlantic City than it would at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.

She said she tells coworkers to check prices at different hospitals to ensure they aren’t paying too much at AtlantiCare.

The union noted Shore Medical Center in Somers Point is much more in line with the state averages.

AtlantiCare spokesperson Rene Bunting said the health care company has offered the union a new proposal that would effectively keep its health care rates for services at AtlantiCare flat for the next three years, preserving their current competitive discounts.

“We agree that the fee-for-service healthcare model is obsolete and that costs have risen nationally and locally — in large part due to patients’ inappropriate utilization of healthcare; inefficient care models; and lack of accessibility,” Bunting said in a statement. “Our new care models … provide more convenient access to care, a higher quality of care, a better experience for patients/members and families, and therefore — more value for consumers and employers.”

Bunting said AtlantiCare’s charges also cover free care given to underinsured and uninsured patients in the community. The organization said it provided more than $49 million in charity care in 2012.

AtlantiCare said it will continue to work with the union on the proposal.

The higher costs have meant the casinos have less money to give the workers’ raises, McDevitt said.

He noted many of the employees have had layoffs or had their hours reduced as the casino industry has struggled in recent years. When it comes time to negotiate new contracts, McDevitt said AtlantiCare must be more accountable for their costs.

The union plans to open its own medical facility at its offices at 1801 Atlantic Ave. to treat its members. McDevitt said they hope to open the facility Jan. 1, with the idea of not allowing AtlantiCare to have a monopoly on health services in the resort.

The union also formed a coalition with its biggest employer, Caesar’s Entertainment, to reduce costs. The union said they will save about $7 million its first year with the new program.

McDevitt said he would not ask his members to boycott AtlantiCare.

“People get sick and they have to go somewhere. Especially if they live in Atlantic City there is nowhere else to go,” he said. "They have to be accountable. They can't be a predator."

Staff writer Donald Wittkowski contributed to this report.

Contact Joel Landau:

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Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.