Mixed message: The multiple personalities of UPMC

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Strange things are happening at UPMC. If you're paying attention to the hospital network's public pronouncements, you're seeing messages that display all sorts of mood swings.

There's the soft side of UPMC, a series of TV commercials called "Stories" that focus on real doctors who have helped real patients through life-threatening medical situations.

There's the hard side of UPMC, its overheated legal response to the city of Pittsburgh's challenge to the network's tax-exempt status. In an emotionally charged court brief that will be hard for a judge to take seriously, UPMC tosses around phrases like "sham lawsuit" and "shadowy funding" and invokes the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon in its bid for sympathy as a victim unfairly targeted by the government.

In between is a different series of TV ads featuring board chairman G. Nicholas Beckwith III and chief medical director Steven G. Shapiro. They tell viewers that Highmark insurance's competing hospital system must capture 41,000 new patients to succeed -- then suggest that it will mean closing UPMC's Shadyside and Mercy hospitals and cutting 11,000 jobs. For that reason, they say UPMC cannot continue to treat Highmark's customers at in-network rates after 2014.

Well, if UPMC can't afford to give up patients, then why did it say last week that its insurance arm, UPMC Health Plan, will not bid for the business of city employees, thereby passing up the chance to treat 7,900 individuals?

It's no surprise that people are more confused than convinced. If UPMC were a person displaying all these personalities, how would its doctors diagnose the disorder?

All this double-speak ends at the same place, with Highmark customers being refused access to the region's largest health-care system -- a public charity built in part by people's charitable contributions and the state's tax exemptions.

When UPMC warns the Pittsburgh region about possible lost customers, it raises the specter of closing Shadyside and Mercy. Never does the $10 billion global enterprise hint that the ax should fall on its operations in China, Singapore, Kazakhstan, Japan, Ireland, Italy or the United Kingdom.

No wonder UPMC is losing the PR war. Pittsburghers are bound to lose faith in a medical network that is willing to kiss off thousands of city workers and hundreds of thousands of Highmark subscribers. Once that faith is lost, no number of mixed messages can bring it back.



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