Pittsburgh Business Group on Health became a force in 20 years under Christine Whipple

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When M. Christine Whipple took over as interim executive director of the Pittsburgh Business Group on Health 20 years ago, the fledgling group of local employers had 30 members and no physical office space.

As she went through her records on the eve of her retirement recently, she noted that PBGH now has 102 members -- but still no office.

Both points reflect the organization's evolution during her tenure: While running the leanest of operations with only 2.5 full-time positions, PBGH has become a force for local employers who want to see local health care systems do the same.

Consider: One of Mrs. Whipple's first public commentaries in 1993 railed against the addition of another multimillion-dollar MRI unit at a time when Allegheny County had only two fewer units than all of Canada. "Rather than increasing capacity, we should be planning for the reduction of excess MRI units in our region," she said.

More recently, Mrs. Whipple, who joined PBGH after overseeing the health care benefits program for Allegheny International, penned a 2008 commentary for the Post-Gazette criticizing UPMC's plans to build a new hospital in Monroeville less than two miles from Forbes Regional Hospital. "What's truly hard to find is any rationale for the hospital," she wrote.

UPMC East was built anyway and MRIs have become standard equipment at major hospitals. But the business group has also seen successes, notably with the creation of a group-purchasing program for prescription medications, which Mrs. Whipple estimates has saved the 23 participating employers $47 million over the current three-year contract, now in its second year, and $96 million in the previous three-year contract.

While double-digit health care costs have certainly been a motivator, what employers are really looking for is value, she said, or good quality care at a reasonable cost.

Another theme she has often trumpeted is transparency, both in what employers were paying for and the level of benefit that employees received. "If employees would understand the total compensation package, then they would be able to choose: 'Do I want it as salary or do I want it as a benefit?' "

Her most visible contribution has been the five or six Pittsburgh Business Group on Health community forums held each year, including an annual health care symposium in September that last year attracted more than 350 representatives of local employers.

The nonprofit, with an annual budget of about $450,000, is supported by members' annual dues that range from $1,200 up to $2,750, depending on their number of U.S. employees.

"She attracted speakers from across the country and has been able to really help us benchmark ourselves against the best," said Pamela Vass, vice president of human resources for Ellwood City-based steelmaker Ellwood Group, which employs 2,400. "It's become an event that's important to Pittsburgh."

Those forums also have become models for other groups nationally, said Karen Linscott, COO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Business Coalition Health. Mrs. Whipple, who has served on the coalition's board of governors, "has truly been a mentor to me and to other coalition directors, and that's a very valuable role. It transcends the local impact," she said.

The departure of Mrs. Whipple, 62, comes at a crucial time in health care, locally and nationally.

Of the ongoing UPMC-Highmark dispute over whether the two Pittsburgh health care companies will continue an in-network relationship, she said, "We've always been for competition. I think the concern is the highly specialized services and the need for people to have access to them and on what terms will they have access to them."

The national Affordable Care Act presents its own challenges for employers, who are concerned about making sure they comply with its still-unfolding regulations and changing deadlines, Mrs. Whipple added.

With private health care exchanges now making health insurance more accessible, some employers question their traditional role of providing health insurance, she said. "I have a lot of employers say, 'We don't buy car insurance for our employees. Why should we buy health insurance?' "

Those will be issues for Jessica L. Brooks, Mrs. Whipple's successor, to address. Ms. Brooks, who has a master's degree in public management at Carnegie Mellon University, previously was a diversity and inclusion consultant for Highmark Corp.

"Certainly, the changes that are occurring are challenging, but they also bring opportunities to the employers," Mrs. Whipple said. "I think the uncertainty just presents opportunities for employers to join together and to really be their peer counselors and peer experts as they manage the choppy waters ahead."

Steve Twedt: stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.

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