CEO: Hospital on target for merger

The Altoona Regional Health System is on schedule to join UPMC as of July 1, President and CEO Jerry Murray told employees in a letter distributed Friday,

One day after a delegation, through a petition with 2,000 signatures, asked the hospital’s board to reconsider the pending affiliation, Murray issued a letter confirming that the targeted merger date will be met.

“I am pleased to report that we are completing the due diligence phase of our affiliation process and are on schedule to announce on July 1 that we have joined the UPMC system,” Murray wrote in his letter.

The delegation organized by the SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania employees, named several concerns about the pending merger in its petition submitted Thursday to the hospital’s board.

Murray’s letter doesn’t mention the petition, but it makes a reference to a main concern named in the petition: whether Highmark insurance will be accepted at Altoona Regional after the merger.

“UPMC has said publicly more than once that it will welcome negotiations in the market with Highmark and all other insurers,” Murray said in his letter.

“I don’t think that’s the case any longer,” delegation member Bob Kutz, president of the Blair-Bedford Central Labor Council said Saturday. “The board of UPMC in Pittsburgh said Thursday that they’re not going to extend their agreement with Highmark past June 2014.”

In a resolution passed Wednesday, UPMC’s board spelled out its rationale for not renewing its Highmark contract beyond 2014. Highmark, which contends that a Highmark-UPMC relationship is in the best interest of the community, responded with a statement accusing UPMC of taking a monopolistic position.

The local delegation claims that Blair County’s 44,000 Highmark subscribers are at risk of losing in-network access to Altoona Regional, and maybe to Pittsburgh area hospitals, without agreements governing future access. An Altoona Hospital spokesman dismissed that claim on Thursday as a scare tactic and referred to UPMC’s previous commitment to negotiate a separate contract with Highmark for access to UPMC.

The delegation also complained about a lack of communication with the public, although Murray, in his letter, said that questions from the community have been rare.

Kutz said he wasn’t surprised by Murray’s letter indicating that the merger is on schedule for July 1.

“I think the die has been cast,” Kutz said. “But it’s not a done deal until [state Attorney General] Kathleen Kane approves it.

Murray, in his letter to the employees, said most of their questions have focused on human resource issues, especially benefits.

“While we don’t know how benefits might be affected, we hope to have more information soon,” Murray said.

The letter also includes Murray’s endorsement of the pursuit.

“This is an exciting time for health care in our region,” he wrote. “Our vision is to be a world-class health care provider, and together with UPMC, we will realize that goal.”

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.