Highmark CEO remains confident, expects OK for its WPAHS affiliation

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The CEO of Highmark Inc. says he is optimistic that there will be a favorable decision forthcoming from the state Insurance Department regarding the insurer's proposed takeover of the financially ailing West Penn Allegheny Health System.

Speaking at a Thursday breakfast with the membership of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, William Winkenwerder Jr. said, "We don't have any illusions" about the difficulty of the turnaround job that awaits the new owners of WPAHS.

But, he said, "We have to lean forward and take risks" in a marketplace that, on the health care provider side, is dominated by Highmark rival UPMC.

Today is the Insurance Department's "public comment" deadline for those hoping to register an opinion of the proposed affiliation between Highmark and WPAHS. And 11 days from now, April 30, is the expiration date of both the affiliation deal and the debt-reduction deal that Highmark struck with several WPAHS debtholders.

The department could rule on the affiliation before then or, if no ruling has been made by April 30, Highmark and the bondholders could negotiate an extension of the debt-reduction offer.

Last Friday, Highmark launched an advertising campaign aimed at drumming up more public support for the acquisition, and warning viewers and readers about the risk of letting WPAHS die and allowing the UPMC "monopoly" to go unchallenged.

Also at the breakfast, Dr. Winkenwerder said Highmark is still open to a "long-term, stable relationship" with UPMC. Following the breakfast, UPMC said it still has no such interest.

The contract between the two -- which allows most Highmark customers to use all UPMC facilities -- expires at the end of 2014. Highmark customers would lose "in-network" access to UPMC if no contract extension is reached.

Dr. Winkenwerder said, "We're prepared to meet" with UPMC over coming months. He said he spoke briefly with UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff at the end of 2012 but there has been no recent outreach to UPMC or Mr. Romoff.

Talks could begin, he speculated, once Highmark's dealings with WPAHS become final.

UPMC spokesman Paul Wood said, "There is nothing coming in the next week or month. There is no thought of a discussion of a contract."

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Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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