Petition protesting hospital merger delivered to brass

A delegation organized by SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania presented a petition with more than 2,000 signatures Thursday to Altoona Regional Health System, asking the hospital’s board to reconsider its pending acquisition by UPMC.

The delegation stressed concerns about potential denial of in-network access to Altoona Regional for Blair County’s 44,000 Highmark subscribers – given that UPMC has said it won’t renew its contract with Highmark when the current one expires at the end of 2014.

The delegation also alleged lack of transparency in the board’s not sharing much about negotiations that have led to the acquisition commitment. Officials said they hope to complete the acquisition by July 1.

Hospital spokesman Dave Cuzzolina dismissed the Highmark worries, citing UPMC’s previously stated commitment to negotiate a separate contract with Highmark for access to Altoona Regional.

“They [opponents of the deal] continue to try to scare people with this,” he said.

Cuzzolina answered the lack-of-transparency charge by saying the board “represents the public and is charged with preserving and enhancing local health care for everyone.”

UPMC can say anything it wants about intending to sign a special contract with Highmark to cover Altoona Regional, said delegation member Jami Claycomb, an Altoona Regional employee and SEIU member.

“But whenever the time of the contract comes up, all bets are off,” she said.

Moreover, even if a contract with Highmark provides access to Altoona Regional, it won’t necessarily do so for UPMC facilities in Pittsburgh, where many local patients seek care for serious problems, she said.

UPMC spokeswoman Susan Manko has said previously that it will be up to Highmark to determine what happens with local subscribers who want high-level care in Pittsburgh.

Highmark can either reimburse them for care at UPMC or direct them to its own Allegheny Health Network, Manko has said.

Retired Altoona police officer Jerry McCaulley, who gathered the petition signatures in the community, said it’s not right that Altoona Regional should enter a deal where there’s the possibility that local subscribers to Highmark may not have access.

“This is the only hospital we have,” McCaulley said.

Moreover, the community built the hospital, which makes the prospect of losing access to it even more troubling, he said.

Delegation member Paul Johnson, pastor of Eighteenth Street Community Church, doesn’t buy the board’s argument that the community should simply have silent faith.

“It’s not that I don’t trust the board,” Johnson said. “[But] if they represent me, why won’t they talk to me?”

It’s problematic that “the whole process has gone on without one public forum,” said Bob Kutz, delegation member and president of the Blair-Bedford Central Labor Council.

Hospital officials argued that the board comprises community members, but those are exclusively professional types, Kutz said.

Rank-and-file workers have been “shut out” of the hospital’s choice of affiliation partners, Claycomb said.

The petition also alleged concerns about high charges by UPMC facilities, shabby treatment of disloyal doctors in connection with the Highmark feud, closing of acquired hospitals and putting profits ahead of patients.

Those charges are essentially irrelevant, UPMC has said because few actually pay list price, the physicians brought the problems on themselves, UPMC closed one vastly under-utilized hospital in Braddock and the organization provides many millions of dollars worth of charitable services.

“These are sincere people who are concerned,” Cuzzolina said.

But they needn’t worry, he said, citing a prior statement from Manko:

“As in other areas where we have successfully affiliated with community hospitals, resulting in expanding quality clinical care and patient program growth, we are committed to meeting the health care needs of local residents.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.