Nurses push to escalate petition drive

Altoona Regional Health System nurses affiliated with SEIU Healthcare PA have expanded an ongoing petition drive questioning the hospital’s pending merger with UPMC.

Calling themselves “Altoona Nurses for Quality Healthcare,” they have sent out 25,000 mailers to local residents, focusing on those whose age and location make them likely to be Altoona Regional patients with private insurance, according to Paula Stellabotte, president of the hospital’s SEIU local.

The mailers contain a detachable section with prepaid postage, a signature line and an updated version of an earlier petition circulated at the hospital and at community events.

The new petition warns of alleged potential problems if UPMC takes over, including access limitations for Highmark subscribers, high charges and high profits, problematic treatment of physicians, the closing of local hospitals and the City of Pittsburgh’s challenge to UPMC’s tax-exempt status.

“In light of these concerns, we urge the board to slow down and stop exclusive talks with UPMC,” the petition states.

The SEIU nurses are trying “to scare people with non-issues,” said spokesman Dave Cuzzolina of Altoona Regional, which is targeting July 1 for completion of the merger.

“An affiliation with UPMC is an opportunity to bring truly world-class health care to our area,” Cuzzolina said. “We can’t imagine anyone not wanting that.”

UPMC repudiates the criticism, too.

There shouldn’t be an access problem for Highmark subscribers here, despite a long-running feud between UPMC and Highmark, according to Cuzzolina.

UPMC doesn’t plan to renew its contract with Highmark after this year but will make an exception for this area, because Altoona Regional is a sole community provider, according to UPMC Children’s President Christopher Gessner, who spoke here last week.

It will be up to Highmark to determine what happens with their subscribers sent to Pittsburgh for high-level care not available here, according to UPMC spokeswoman Susan Manko.

Highmark can choose to reimburse them or try to steer them to its own Allegheny Health Network, she said.

The alarm over high charges is “lame,” Manko said.

“Charges don’t mean anything in most cases,” she said. “Few patients pay [them].”

The real issue is reimbursement actually paid by insurers, and UPMC is about the same or lower than other major academic medical centers around the country, she said.

Manko cited a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article that quoted Robert Morris University Professor Stephen Foreman, who took the argument in a different direction, saying the high stated charges at UPMC facilities reflect “some of the finest care in the world” and the infrastructure that underlies that. Many UPMC departments lose money because too many patients served by them can’t pay, Foreman added.

The concern over high profits is also misplaced, according to Manko, who cited a financial results briefing last week that revealed UPMC’s revenue for the first three quarters of the current fiscal year fell by $18 million compared to the previous year, because of cuts in state and federal reimbursements. That doesn’t mean the hospital is losing money: It had an operating margin – euivalent to profit – for those three quarters of $146 million on $7.5 billion gross operating revenue, according to an Associated Press story.

The accusation that UPMC is guilty of closing local hospitals is misleading, according to Manko.

UPMC closed its hospital in Braddock in 2010, only because it was “severely under-utilized,” according to Manko. UPMC still has a presence in Braddock in the form of “a myriad of appropriate outpatient services,” she said.

Other acquisitions have thrived, she said.

The issue of doctor mistreatment stemmed from an incident the doctors brought on themselves, according to UPMC.

And the tax challenge was an attempt by the City of Pittsburgh’s administration to distract people from its own problems, according to UPMC.

The SEIU nurses have been circulating the initial petition at Curve games, bingo, bowling and organizational meetings, according to Stellabotte, who said it’s generated “at least a couple thousand” signatures.

Lots of people have questions, she said.

“We’re answering what we can,” she said. “We’re listening to their concerns.”

The nurses want to “shine a light” on the merger issues, she said.

Those are problems not just for nurses, but the whole community, she said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.