Town hall meeting raises concerns

A city-organized town hall meeting Tuesday on the recently completed acquisition of Altoona Regional Health System by UPMC unleashed a flurry of concerns from insured patients, hospital workers, a medical provider and a representative from a taxing jurisdiction.

It was softened with references to UPMC’s “world class” medical quality and expressions of optimism that it will all work out, but it had the feel of a hammering – even as it suggested that UPMC is a formidable organization.

“They’re strong-willed, and they get what they want,” said Cindy Cromie of Erie.

On Tuesday, however, the formidable organization didn’t respond to the hammering, as its only management representative was there merely to transcribe the concerns and distribute forms for questions the hospital will answer on its website or individually.

“They should have been here,” said City Councilman Dave Butterbaugh, who organized the meeting.

Their absence was “very disrespectful,” said chiropractor Brett Dongell, who spoke from the audience – which numbered about 150.

After the meeting, hospital spokesman Dave Cuzzolina, said by phone, “I’m not sure whose purpose it serves to turn the community against something that has so many positives.”

Hospital President Jerry Murray would have been there, but had a scheduling conflict, Cuzzolina said.

Several speakers reiterated worries expressed many times in recent weeks about whether UPMC will negotiate a deal with Highmark to give the 44,000 Highmark subscribers in Blair County access to UPMC Altoona.

UPMC’s well-publicized feud with Highmark and its declared intention not to renew its general agreement with Highmark for access to UPMC medical facilities after the current agreement with Highmark expires at the end of 2014 has led to that concern.

Still, UPMC has said it plans to negotiate a separate deal for Altoona if Highmark agrees to reasonable terms, because Altoona is a sole provider.

Moreover, the state Attorney General has said she plans to make sure the parties negotiate in good faith to get such a deal.

Yet mistrust remains.

“I’m optimistic,” said state Rep. John McGinnis, one of several panelists who made statements before audience members spoke. “[But] all of us need to apply pressure.”

The community needs a written commitment, said Paula Stellabotte, president of the SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania local representing UPMC Altoona registered nurses.

Cromie spoke of a unhappy recent experience as a UPMC Hamot employee in Erie.

She had been a medical transcriptionist for about 10 years when the organization this spring “coldly” outsourced its transcriptionist jobs to a company called Nuance, which means an eventual halving of pay, a piecework payment method – four cents a line – “and a costlier healthcare plan.”

“I don’t see how I can afford to keep my family together making barely $8 an hour,” Cromie said.

Her next 10 years, which will bring her to retirement are not “going to be as stable and secure as I thought,” she said.

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, a former state representative, complained about UPMC’s performance as a public charity, whose tax exemptions “cost local taxpayers millions” in the Pittsburgh area.

“It’s sad that a charity treats its workers this way,” she said, referring to the transcriptionists. “To save a couple bucks,” she added.

The value of the organization’s tax breaks in Allegheny County alone is $200 million, she said.

As for UPMC’s feud with Highmark, “a charity should not be worried about competition,” she said.

Dongell told of being rejected once when he tried to sign up as a provider in the UPMC insurance network, because there were too many chiropractors in this area. That indicates the organization will be able to “dictate what doctors you go to,” he said.

UPMC Altoona nurse Jamie Claycomb and employee Gillian Kratzner complained of a lack of transparency in the runup to the acquisition.

Resident John Carnicella complained about UPMC getting a pass from the Attorney General on antitrust.

After the meeting, Butterbaugh was pleased.

“We got their attention,” he said. “We needed to do this.”

“This world class healthcare organization,” Cromie said. “Watch out for what they say and promise.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.