UPMC merger a major step for community

The Altoona Regional Health System underwent perhaps the biggest change in its history this week as the long-discussed merger with UPMC went into effect.

After nearly two years of contemplation and extensively weighing its options, Altoona Regional – now known as UPMC Altoona hospital – is joining UPMC to ensure financial stability, preserve existing services, add new ones and meet a myriad of other potential challenges thrown up the ever-changing world of health care.

The Altoona Regional board voted unanimously to move forward with the merger, which aligns the local hospital with a regional giant.

UPMC will invest $250 million over 10 years to upgrade facilities and services, assume all Altoona Regional Hospital System liabilities and maintain operations at the current campus for 20 years.

Hospital collaborations are not new to the region.

Altoona Hospital and Bon Secours-Holy Family Hospital merged in 2004. UPMC also merged with Hamot Medical Center in Erie while Geisinger – which Altoona officials also spoke with before deciding on UPMC – has merged in the last two years with hospitals in Scranton and, just recently, Lewistown.

UPMC has consistently been included in the hospital honor roll of U.S. News & World Report, and “this relationship [merger] means patients will be able to receive an even higher level of care in our region – for years to come,” according to commentary co-authored by current local hospital President Jerry Murray and board Chairman Rob Halbritter and published in the Mirror.

Not all hospital employees, however, share the administration’s enthusiasm.

A delegation organized by SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, which represents the hospital’s registered nurses, recently presented a petition with approximately 3,000 signatures, asking the hospital’s board to reconsider its plans to merge with UPMC.

At the core of the concern is UPMC’s strained relationship with Highmark, its rival health care entity that insures 44,000 residents of in Blair County alone.

UPMC has said it won’t renew its contract with Highmark when the current one expires at the end of 2014, but it has also said it will negotiate a separate contract with Highmark for access to the local hospital.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane has been reviewing the transaction for anti-trust issues. She announced Tuesday that she won’t object to the deal, but she will require UPMC to work with Highmark to allow Highmark subscribers access to the hospital.

That is comforting, but there still will be doubters, of course. While skepticism is healthy, we don’t want to be among those doubters.

There are also those who are resistant to change.

We don’t want to be among them, either.

We want to trust the hospital, its administration and its board that it’s acting in the best interest of the community – including for those who may have Highmark insurance and for those who may end up being referred to UPMC’s Pittsburgh facilities for more serious ailments.

Affordable health care is a top priority and of considerable worry to anyone who shells out a sizable portion – larger than most of us prefer – of their paychecks for the day, not if but when it’s needed.

As is the case in any new relationship, it will take time to access this marriage.

But we’re optimistic that UPMC Altoona – just like its predecessor – will be one of our most important community assets, and it’s our hope that all parties will work together to make the new local hospital a premier health-care facility for its patients and employees alike.