Crazy UPMC case seeks to latte it out of paying taxes

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I've never been to med school and it's thus possible my judgment is ill-informed, but let me ask what you think is the correct answer here:

What are the essential elements of the modern hospital?

A) Emergency room

B) MRI machine

C) Subway restaurant

D) Crazy Mocha coffee shop

E) All of the Above

The correct answer is E. At least it is if you're on the legal team representing UPMC as it tries to protect its 550 acres of tax-free property in Allegheny County from the taxman.

I make no claim to have read all the arguments made by the medical giant. Entire forests may have to be cleared to provide enough paper for all that UPMC has to say in its defense. But holy Hippocrates, Batman, get a load of the argument regarding Block & Lot Nos. 856-K-179 and 856-P-155 in Monroeville.

"A total of 320 square feet is used by Crazy Mocha Coffee Company for the operation of a coffee shop that is used by the Hospital's patients, visitors, and employees for food and beverages. The provision of food and beverages for these individuals is essential to the Hospital's operations. A copy of the lease for this space is included herewith ..."

Yes, though it's true that medicine was practiced before the advent of the modern coffee shop, it was quite primitive. Medical scholars will tell you that Clara Barton earned the title "Angel of the Battlefield'' in the American Civil War not so much for her nursing, but for her ability to deliver vanilla chai and biscotti to the Union troops under heavy fire.

Likewise, Florence Nightingale has been incorrectly called "The Lady With The Lamp'' for her unceasing work during the Crimean War. She was actually "The Lady With The Double-Shot Skim Latte and Bagel.'' You could look it up.

What the county could expect to get in taxes from the measly 320 square feet that Crazy Mocha is leasing is uncertain, but it is clear UPMC intends to defend every inch of its nonprofit perch, from the corporate suites down to the coffee grinders.

Take Subway -- oh no, you won't, county Treasurer John K. Weinstein.

Subway leases 1,115 square feet of the three-story Prescott Building that's part of UPMC McKeesport. This restaurant, too, "is used by the Hospital's patients, visitors, and employees. The provision of food for these individuals is essential to the Hospital's operations.''

Of course it is. As Subway spokesman Jared Fogle, the Brad Pitt of fast food (hey, it's either him or Ronald McDonald), would tell you, eating Subway food is itself a health regimen. One could even argue it can reduce patients' medical expenses. There is no need for liposuction or gastrointestinal surgery if people needing to shed weight would just try Jared's stupid diet.

Come to think of it, if America is able to swallow a sandwich-based weight loss plan, why shouldn't it wolf down the legal arguments that say fast food is as essential to a hospital as intravenous tubes?

Victory here for UMPC might even open new opportunities for Jared. He could step out of those commercials and into a starring role on "Grey's Anatomy,'' playing himself. Yeah, you'd better move over Dr. McDreamy, there's a new heartthrob at that oversexed hospital of yours, and he's springing for turkey-with-mustards for the entire ER.

This is one food fight that could be all out of proportion with its import. Crazy Mocha and Subway lease less than 1,500 square feet between them, and UPMC has nearly 200 tax-free parcels scattered around the county. Losing or keeping nonprofit status at these two spots isn't going to make or break either the medical giant or the county budget.

The larger question, actually, is coming not from the county but the city. Outgoing Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is challenging UPMC's charitable status, and we got a taste of UPMC's argument in its filings with the county; the health care titan says it operates "entirely free of any profit motive and applies all of its excess revenue in furtherance of its charitable mission.''

That's not the entire argument, of course. Some 572 pages were filed regarding just UPMC Presbyterian and UPMC Shadyside. Before all the legal battles are over, not even a pair of Jared's old pants will be able to hold all the paperwork.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947. First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM


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