Bitter pill: No one wants health-care choice by coercion

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The nasty and costly TV ad war between UPMC and Highmark has annoyed more than the viewers at home. Now it's testing the patience of state officials who can step into this fight before someone gets hurt.

Last month, Gov. Tom Corbett faulted the advertising by the region's two leading health care players for "causing confusion and great concern among consumers who use Highmark insurance products and UPMC hospitals and providers."

Last week, state health Secretary Michael Wolf and state insurance Commissioner Michael Consedine sent a letter to the CEOs of Highmark and UPMC saying the TV ads "appear to be intended to drive consumers to choose their health insurance and health provider based on fear." The officials were acting in their capacity as leaders in the Interagency Consumer Protection Task Force, created by the governor to dispel confusion about health care and health insurance.

The letter was right, and we think the leaders of UPMC and Highmark would be the first to agree that fear should not be the driving force behind a health care or health insurance decision. Yet the ads speak for themselves and, sad to say, for the corporations' dueling business strategies.

But who will speak for Western Pennsylvanians trying to access quality health care at affordable prices? Not the marketing whizzes behind such commercials.

UPMC and Highmark provide products and services that are essential to the well-being of the region. Both have been around for a long time, both have benefited the community as major employers and corporate citizens and both have the financial wherewithal to stay for decades more. Pittsburgh is better for it.

That's another reason the ad watchers despise the bashing. They believe that UPMC and Highmark have a place here and they resent the calculations on both sides to tear the other down.

As health care patients and health insurance customers, Pittsburghers want fair and easy access to the quality they know has been built here -- not just by the dedication of UPMC and Highmark employees, but also through the tax exemptions and charitable contributions that support these enterprises.

So let the ad wars end and let the positive story-telling begin. And, along the way, may UPMC and Highmark figure out a method to provide the most open access for the people of Western Pennsylvania.



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