Symposium panelists express fear of growing U.S. debt

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Duquesne University business professor James B. Burnham has an idea about when we'll know that an economic recovery has arrived -- when graduating business majors have at least three job offers.

Meanwhile, he said, we should all recognize that what we're experiencing is evidence that "the business cycle is alive and well. We've been here before, we'll be here again."

Dr. Burnham was one of three local panelists who met at Duquesne's Power Center on Thursday for the business school's Beard Institute symposim on the current economic picture and, specifically, the hoped-for recovery.

"There are an awful lot of positive forces," he said, noting that production and profits were up, capital spending was accelerating and consumer spending appeared to be making a comeback, although the employment and housing sectors were still struggling.

He noted that the nation was 18 months into the current economic expansion and "the good news is that the average post-World War II expansion is 73 months."

Dr. Burnham and his co-panelists -- Malcolm E. Polley, executive vice president and managing director for S&T Wealth Management in Indiana, Pa.; and James A. Szilagy, chief supply chain officer for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center -- said the darkest cloud on the horizon was the growing national debt.

Said Mr. Polley, "The U.S. can either deal with the problem or have the financial markets force it on them."

With its international reach, UPMC can bear witness to economic conditions around the globe. Mr. Szilagy said, "China's looking very interesting to us," and that the region's largest employer was exploring opportunities to expand there, particularly in telemedicine.

But the health system is also seeing fallout from the financial difficulties in Ireland, where UPMC manages Dublin's Beacon Hospital in partnership with Beacon Medical Group. In negotiation on reimbursement rates with the Irish government, he said, the government offered the same amount of money over 12 months that it previously paid for 10 months, despite a patient count that "has far exceeded" previous years.

"That's how desperate they are in terms of not having any money."

Globally, Mr. Polley said, the United States must accept the fact that long-term it will not retain the economic power it has had and that the U.S. dollar may not remain the major global currency it has been. "That's not good or bad. It's a reality."

Closer to home and more immediately, the panelists worried about Washington legislators' willingness and ability to address economic issues.

"It's just not a very nice environment politically," said Dr. Burnham, adding that financial markets don't like the uncertainty that creates.

Mr. Szilagy said he was pessimistic as well. "I just don't see them working together to find solutions that are good for the country."

Even the historic health care reform bill passed last year remains in question, with current attempts to repeal or defund it, and uncertainties about how health care reform will play out even if left intact. All of that makes it difficult for health care entities to plan very far ahead.

There is one certainty, Mr. Szilagy added, although not one that will help them financially.

"Whatever happens [with health care reform], we're going to get paid less for what we do."

Steve Twedt: or 412-263-1963.


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