After almost a year of discussion with potential big-brother partners, Altoona Regional Health System has decided to focus on UPMC.
The local hospital hasn't made a final decision, but detailed talks with UPMC are the next logical step in finding a larger affiliate to help Altoona Regional meet the challenges of health care reform, according to the hospital.
"We want to be a regional hub for medical services and to expand and enhance our services," Altoona Regional spokesman Dave Cuzzolina said Tuesday. "Preliminary discussions indicate that UPMC is the partner that can make that happen - now we're going to take a more detailed look."
UPMC is a $20 billion organization with 55,000 employees, 20 hospitals, 400 doctors' offices and outpatient sites and a health insurance division, according to material provided by Altoona Regional.
At 380 beds, Altoona Regional would become the third largest UPMC affiliate in terms of bed size, after UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside, with 1,532 beds, and UPMC Mercy, with 487 beds, according to information supplied by UPMC spokesman Paul Wood.
People may assume that an affiliation with a big-city hospital would lead to reduction of services locally, but UPMC has "a good long track record of commitment to local growth and local governance," Wood said.
UPMC Hamot in Erie County exemplifies that, he said.
Since UPMC acquired Hamot in 2011, its employee roster has increased by 300, its physician roster has increased by 72, inpatient admissions have risen 10 percent and emergency room visits have risen 17 percent, Wood said.
Local residents are leaving the Erie area for care 7 percent less frequently, and patients are coming in for care 8 percent more frequently, he said.
"We bring expertise in service that may not have been available," Wood said of UPMC affiliations in general.
Those affiliations have tended to enhance the overall economies of those regions, he said.
UPMC's track record of "clinical excellence" led to its recognition by U.S. News & World Report as the No. 10 hospital in the country and the No. 1 hospital in Pennsylvania, Wood said.
Altoona Regional's junior partner in its talks with UPMC remains Nason Hospital.
The pair previously agreed previously to work toward creation of a Blair County-wide health care system.
"We are obviously involved and support them," Nason CEO Garrett Hoover said of the talks. "Nason is very supportive of the direction they have chosen."
The focus on UPMC means that Geisinger and Highmark, two potential big-brother partners, are out of the picture for now, Cuzzolina confirmed.
"Naturally, Geisinger is disappointed," Geisinger spokeswoman Sue Baranik said. "We thought we had a lot of value to offer this area," she said. "But we understand, and we honor the decision."
Highmark spokesman Michael Weinstein reiterated a recent statement that Highmark is "developing an integrated delivery network in western Pennsylvania" and has been talking with doctors and community hospitals to find those that "share Highmark's vision."
Highmark plans to continue to work with Altoona Regional to ensure that Highmark health plan members in this area continue to have access to Altoona Regional now and into the future, Weinstein added.
"We will explore every action necessary," he said.
Altoona Regional workers represented by SEIU Healthcare PA have concerns.
They have launched an online petition calling for: an open process, with workers and the community having a voice in decision-making on this "community asset"; maintenance or expansion of the hospital as a "full-service resource"; maintenance of "family-sustaining" jobs supported by existing labor agreements at the hospital; and maintenance of access for all area doctors to practice at Altoona Regional.
The Altoona Regional board, which has been "intetrally involved in this process from the beginning," is "comprised of dedicated representatives of the people of this community," Cuzzolina said in response to the petition.
Expanding and enhancing services and employment are among the board's main goals in seeking affiliation, he said.
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.