Rob Halbritter was sitting at a small table against a pillar in the atrium lobby of Blair County's major hospital Monday, as employees streamed past like a river around a bridge pier for cake and cookies to celebrate the hospital's new affiliation.
Then he noticed a banner high on the atrium wall with tangible evidence that he, as chairman of the hospital board, his colleagues and management staff had accomplished what they'd set out to do two years ago - enter a partnership to secure the financial and services future of the organization.
It read "UPMC Altoona."
Mirror photos by J.D. Cavrich
Christopher A Gessner (left), president of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, and Jerry Murray, president and CEO of UPMC Altoona, speak about the merger with UPMC's system.
"Gives me goosebumps," Halbritter said.
"Good for the city, good for us," said Jeff Fisher, an information technology worker.
It's good for employees because becoming part of a bigger system creates opportunities, he said.
City sets merger meeting
The City of Altoona has scheduled a town hall informational meeting on the UPMC-Altoona Regional Health System merger for 6 p.m. July 9 at the Altoona Area High School auditorium. Hospital representatives and local, county and state government officials will attend. For more information, call the City Clerk at 949-2486.
The hospital's name changed to UPMC Altoona when the merger took effect Monday morning.
In late May at a City Council meeting, council members expressed concerns about access to the local hospital for subscribers to Highmark health plans after a group of citizens, including local unionized nurses, shared their worries about the merger based on UPMC's stated intention not to renew its contract with Highmark after the current contract expires at the end of 2014. UPMC officials have said they plan to try to work out special deals with Highmark for its subscribers to access sole community hospitals, including UPMC Altoona and UPMC Bedford.
It also creates interesting challenges right here.
He's looking forward to helping meld Altoona's IT system into UPMC's.
"This is what you do IT for," he said. "It's exciting."
The acquisition may eventually provide local services such as neo-natal intensive care, said Tiffany Tomlinson, an RN in the heart catheterization laboratory.
It will be good overall, said co-worker Amy Stevens, a registered cardiovascular invasive specialist in the cath lab.
Still, both are leery about the possibility that the acquisition could reduce their benefits, including their retirement package.
But they're young enough to move on, if necessary, to cement those benefits, they said.
"We'll wait and see," Stevens said.
The merger took effect just after midnight Sunday, and the only initial evidence would have been the altered greeting of the phone receptionist, according to Altoona President Jerry Murray.
People won't notice many changes for six months to a year, though management will be putting an integration plan to cover the merging of IT, for consistency in electronic billing and health records; the shifting to UPMC's purchase plan, economies of scale in the execution of services, creation of a robust physicians organization and the melding and buildup of home health agencies, according to UPMC Children's President Chris Gessner - who will become an Altoona board member - and Murray.
The merging of IT will help ensure continuity of care for area patients who end up going to UPMC in Pittsburgh for specialty care, according to Gessner.
Asked whether the organization might seek to oust the unions that represent 60 to 70 percent of the local hospital's employees, Gessner said, "We want to figure out a way to co-exist with our union partners and make a productive relationship."
Asked whether the organization would seek wage parity between Altoona employees and those in the same jobs in other parts of the organization, Gessner said there are union negotiations to work through first.
The contract with the Service Employees International Union, which represents registered nurses, expires at the end of this year.
The contract with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents licensed practical nurses, technicians and maintenance staff, expires at the end of 2014.
Asked whether he expected contract negotiations to be difficult, Gessner said, "I hope not."
The external challenges of health care are daunting, so it helps when there's minimal friction internally, Gessner said.
"We look forward to working with UPMC to ensure quality, affordable health care for our community and safe staffing and first-class professional standards for ARHS nurses," said SEIU local President Paula Stellabotte in an emailed statement.
She called on UPMC to keep its promise to honor the contracts and invest in Altoona facilities.
And she reiterated earlier pleas to ensure in-network access to local UPMC facilities for Highmark insurance subscribers.
UPMC has said it will try to work out a contract with Highmark for access here, because Altoona is a sole community provider.
UPMC doesn't plan to sign a general contract with Highmark to cover access to its facilities where they're in competition with Highmark's new Allegheny Health Network.
Asked for their reaction to the possibility that Highmark could make facility incursions into Blair County, Gessner said, "I don't think it's something we can worry about."
The hospital will focus on what it can control, Murray said.
"[Still] we would welcome the competition," Gessner said.
Competition is good for consumers, because it keeps down prices, he said.
Altoona's leadership studied the issues of merger "every which way but Sunday," said Halbritter, who gave special credit to Murray for thoroughness.
It looked at UPMC's history, administration, doctors and staff and consulted with people in communities where UPMC already had operations, according to Halbritter.
"For the very most part, people were happy," he said.
The local board is set, with 12 local and six UPMC seats, and will meet for the first time July 16, according to Murray and Halbritter.
Bob Montler will be Altoona's representative on the UPMC board.
"It's a stepping stone, but we know where we are going," Halbritter said.
"I'm glad to be part of it," Fisher said. "Pretty cool."
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.