Medical case: WPAHS is hurting and needs another prescription

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If West Penn Allegheny Health System were a human patient, it would be time to try another treatment or seek a second opinion. The patient is clearly ailing and that should be a source of concern for the Pittsburgh region.

Last week WPAHS, the area's second-largest health care system after UPMC, revealed its latest financial temperature. Its operating losses in unaudited numbers rose to $112.5 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, compared with a $51.8 million operating loss in fiscal year 2011 and a $63.1 million loss in 2010.

WPAHS spokeswoman Kelly Sorice put a brave face on the number, which she said was due to "much higher debt and lower revenue based on lower volume," in part because of improvements at West Penn Hospital and the reopening of its emergency room. She pointed out that the results were better than projected by Highmark to the Pennsylvania Insurance Department in its filing for a planned affiliation with West Penn Allegheny.

But WPAHS said last month that Highmark breached the merger deal. Highmark wanted West Penn Allegheny to go through bankruptcy, which the hospital system refused to do. At the time, WPAHS officials said bankruptcy should be the last option, not the first, but these latest gloomy figures don't inspire confidence.

The two parties have been in court arguing about the status of their agreement, with Highmark trying to stop West Penn Allegheny from seeking other possible affiliation partners. The case resumed Thursday in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

This legal fight does not do WPAHS or Highmark much good, but only bloodies them further. Both entities should bandage up their differences, not make the hurt go deeper.

The only one that wins if this patient goes terminal is monopoly-poised UPMC. Under that scenario, health care choice and competition die, too.



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