Some at Altoona Regional Health System urging caution in UPMC's acquisition

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UPMC's months-in-the-making acquisition of the Altoona Regional Health System may soon be finalized, but the deal is not sitting well with some employees and community residents.

Last week, a petition with some 2,000 signatures was delivered to Altoona Health officials, urging them "to slow down and stop exclusive talks with UPMC in order to re-examine the best future course for our hospital."

The next day, Altoona president and CEO Jerry Murray sent a letter to the health system's 6,000 employees that said the UPMC affiliation was on track for a July 1 completion announcement, pending final approval from the board and the state attorney general's office.

"There are some very well-meaning people in the community who have concerns, and we appreciate the concerns that they have. Unfortunately, there are also some with self-serving motives," said Dave Cuzzolina, Altoona Health's director of marketing and communications.

Although he declined to specify, the jab apparently refers to SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, a union that organized the petition and represents Altoona's nurses. For more than a year, SEIU has been trying to organize UPMC's nonclinical staff, primarily focusing on Pittsburgh, while openly questioning the Pittsburgh-based health giant's tax-exempt status.

A big concern among those urging caution is that the ongoing dispute between UPMC and its Pittsburgh rival, insurer Highmark, will spill over to Blair County. UPMC spokeswoman Susan Manko reiterated this week, "It is our intention to work with all insurers in the Altoona area. The Highmark-UPMC contract expiration does not affect communities where UPMC is the sole provider, such as Altoona and Bedford."

Not everyone is reassured.

"There's nothing in writing," said Jerry McCaulley, the retired director of veterans affairs for Blair County and a former Altoona police officer. "I can say anything I want to and turn around and do whatever I want."

Highmark is Blair County's dominant insurer with about 44,000 members, and spokesman Michael Weinstein said Thursday, "We will take every step possible to ensure that Highmark members living in the Altoona region continue to have affordable access to Altoona Regional Health System and its physicians."

But Mr. McCaulley sees big problems if Highmark and what will then be UPMC Altoona do not come to terms when the current contract expires next summer. "There are a lot of retirees, including myself, who would be out of network and pay higher prices. Our wages aren't going up, so where does that money come from?"

Jami Claycomb, an emergency room nurse at Altoona for the past 10 years, said problems could arise before then.

Because Altoona cannot treat the most severe trauma cases or many serious pediatric cases, "We send patients to Pittsburgh every day. Even if they do take Highmark in this area, are those patients still covered when they go to Pittsburgh or are they out of network? That's a huge concern."

For his part, Mr. McCaulley said he does not oppose a UPMC-Altoona affiliation. "What I and several of the people who are retired are concerned about is that there have been no public meetings to let the public give their opinion. This has all been done between the hospital and UPMC."

Hospital spokesman Mr. Cuzzolina acknowledged there have not been public meetings, although the health system indicated last November that it was in serious discussions with UPMC. In February, Altoona's board announced it had signed a nonbinding letter of intent to negotiate the affiliation.

"We feel that once people see what UPMC has to offer this region," Mr. Cuzzolina said, "they will be very happy."

For now, though, Mr. McCaulley says, "People are concerned. People are worried. I hear from people every day: 'What's going to happen?' All we ask is that Altoona Hospital slow down and think about this, and think about the people in this whole area."

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


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