Democratic gubernatorial candidates fault UPMC

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As Rob McCord made his closing statement at a Drexel University debate Monday -- his last pitch in the final debate of a long campaign -- he included one point that might have puzzled the Philadelphia audience.

Ticking off the state's most pressing issues, he placed the need to check UPMC's market practices and its intransigence in dealing with the insurer Highmark high on his list.

On that issue, as with many in the campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor, the contenders have demonstrated broad agreement.

They have faulted the health care giant on two different fronts.

The candidates have taken the union's side in the long-running dispute on SEIU's drive to organize UPMC's workers.

And on the fight that has competed with the Democrats' ad battle for dominance of the local airwaves -- the access dispute between UPMC and Highmark -- the Democrats have been critical of UPMC position.

At a forum at Carnegie Mellon University earlier in the campaign, several spoke in favor of a bipartisan legislative proposal that would prevent consumers from being denied access to a hospital system, or being charged discriminatory rates based on their insurance coverage.

Similar bipartisan measures have been introduced in the Senate by Sens. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hill, and Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler; and in the House by Reps. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, and Jim Christiana, R-Beaver.

UPMC has declined to negotiate a new contract giving Highmark insurance holders in-network access because it sees Highmark-owned hospitals in the Allegheny Health Network as competitors who would attract patients from its system.

At the CMU forum earlier in the campaign, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, said it was "quite remarkable [that] UPMC has made an insurer look as good as it does."

Katie McGinty, a former DEP secretary, said, "Frankel and Costa have the answer; let's get it done."

Campaigning in Mt. Lebanon Thursday, front-runner Tom Wolf said, "My view on the Highmark-UPMC thing is that I really hope they figure out how to come to terms."

Asked if Harrisburg should play a role in resolving the dispute, he said, "I really would hate to do that but obviously the stakes are so large that if they can't settle, they're inviting outside forces to come in an try to mediate some sort of resolution."

It's unclear at this point what potential the dispute has to become a general election issue. While several of the Democrats have contended that Gov. Tom Corbett should take a more assertive role in the dispute, he helped pressure the two health care behemoths to negotiate an extension of their existing agreement in 2012.

Last August, the governor released a statement decrying the heated public rhetoric and confusion over the dispute, while seeming to be careful not to endorse either side.

"Over the past months, my administration has been directly involved in overseeing a transition to the new healthcare landscape developing in western Pennsylvania," Mr. Corbett said in the statement. "Our goal for western Pennsylvania and the entire Commonwealth remains continued access to quality and affordable healthcare for consumers in a competitive and healthy marketplace."


Politics editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.

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