With UPMC refusing to negotiate with Highmark to work out a new contract, many are wondering if the two regional health care giants need a high-level intervention.
More than a dozen regional leaders interviewed over the past week -- including donors, faculty, legislators and board members -- were nearly unanimous in the view that, at the very least, efforts need to be made to get UPMC back to the negotiating table.
Many of those leaders are hoping that individual, high-level cajoling can pull the two back from the brink of an all out, divisive health care war, where patients are both the fodder and prize.
Some faculty and board members at the University of Pittsburgh want the school and its leaders to take a role by nudging its sister organization, UPMC, to drop its current stance.
Officials within the university are worried on various fronts including potential harm to patient care if Highmark subscribers are shut out of UPMC services or are forced to pay higher rates for them.
"I think it's unconscionable that 65 percent of the people of Pittsburgh [who have Highmark insurance] could not use the Hillman Cancer Center," said one member of Pitt's board, alluding to a potential result of the dispute. "It's a community asset. It doesn't belong to Jeff Romoff." Mr. Romoff is UPMC president and CEO.
Hillman, which is run by UPMC, is under a contract that expires in June 2012. In contrast, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC has an insurance contract with Highmark that continues until 2022 and will be accessible to Highmark policy holders until then, UPMC spokesman Paul Wood said.
He insists, though, that Hillman, like UPMC's other hospitals and specialty centers, "will be available to all."
"But Highmark won't have it in its network. How Highmark handles that will be up to Highmark," he said.
The board member, who asked to remain anonymous, said a number of directors on Pitt's board are troubled by what is transpiring. It's hoped that Pitt, perhaps through chancellor Mark Nordenberg, will intervene.
Mr. Nordenberg "isn't the only one" who could impact the dispute, the board member said, "but he's the best."
The board member said not everyone in the public understands that UPMC -- which formally adopted the acronym as its proper name a couple of years ago but is still known by many as the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center -- is officially independent of the university and thus the dispute could reflect negatively on Pitt.
Mr. Wood noted that the university appoints one-third of UPMC's board, and he has heard absolutely nothing about discontent from any Pitt board members or Pitt-appointed members of UPMC's board.
But Michael Pinsky, head of Pitt's faculty senate and a physician, said he and many faculty members are concerned about the situation, which is why he asked for a meeting on Thursday with Mr. Nordenberg and provost Patricia Beeson.
During the meeting, Dr. Pinsky said they told him that because there were "other professional and industry forces at work" in the dispute, "they would let them play out and take a wait-and-see attitude."
Dr. Pinsky is concerned, he said, because "potentially there could be significant health care disadvantages here and people could die -- as a doctor, I'm concerned about that."
Three state legislators who also sit on Pitt's board -- Rep. Dan Frankel, and Sens. Mary Jo White and Jay Costa -- are also concerned.
Once the Legislature finishes its work this week, Mr. Costa, the senate's Democratic minority leader from Forest Hills, said he's hoping to pull together all of the region's legislators in a bipartisan meeting to see what they can do about the UPMC and Highmark impasse.
He said of places like Children's Hospital, the burn center at West Penn, Magee Women's Hospital of UPMC, or the Hillman Cancer Center: "I view those as larger community assets and they should not be restricted or limited by what insurance you hold."
Mr. Frankel, a Democrat from Squirrel Hill, said even in the midst of bitterly partisan budget discussions in recent weeks, he has managed to have private conversations with Republicans who share the same concern about what's happening between UPMC and Highmark.
"From my perspective, you have two nonprofits with a community mission and they need to have that perspective at the forefront," he said, "instead of behaving more like two companies at Wall Street."
Ms. White, a Republican from Venango, said she's "concerned about the people in my area not being able to see their doctors" at UPMC hospitals and physicians' offices.
She has already had conversations with the chair of the senate's banking and insurance committee, Sen. Donald White, R-Indiana, to "see if the Insurance Commission can do anything about this."
Yet another group of regional leaders who figure to weigh in are donors whose names grace the doorways of many of UPMC's hospitals and sections.
Bill Sarris's late father, Frank, gave $5 million to UPMC in 2006 to support its transplant center after he had successful surgery there -- and the outpatient transplant center is now named after him.
But the recent spat between UPMC and Highmark so concerned Bill Sarris and the leadership of the family's company, Sarris Candies, that they discussed who they could call and what they could do Thursday morning -- the day their Highmark insurance policy for their 200 full-time employees was about to roll over into a new year.
"We decided to stay with Highmark another year and see what happens," he said. "But I am concerned. We've made phone calls."
He said one of the forces driving him is the donation his father made.
"When you do something for a community, like that donation, it should be available to all the community," he said. "It shouldn't be limited."
"Elsie's in the same boat; they're not happy," he said, referring to Elsie Hillman, who, along with her husband, Henry, gave $10 million to UPMC in 1999 to build the Hillman Cancer Center, among other donations to UPMC.
Mrs. Hillman said this week that she has gotten a lot of calls from people wondering if the cancer center named after her family would be cut off from access to Highmark clients, but, "I don't know the answer."
"I'm assuming it's going to be worked out," she said.
Mr. Sarris said he's not going to wait to see if it works out because his father, who died last year, would have been incensed.
"He'd be on that phone constantly and just not stop; he'd be relentless like that," he said.
"People like us are going to make an effort to talk to some people, twist an arm or two," he said. "This is what it's going to take, people who donate money, the foundations and us to strong-arm them, so [UPMC and Highmark] do what's right."
Sean D. Hamill: email@example.com or 412-263-2579. Bill Schackner contributed.