Strange medicine: UPMC goes political on a member of the House

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The latest proof that Pittsburgh’s health care landscape is changing is UPMC’s bare-knuckled treatment of a state representative who co-authored legislation the hospital network doesn’t like.

Rep. Jim Christiana, a Republican from Beaver, has joined with Democratic Rep. Dan Frankel of Squirrel Hill to offer two bills that, among other things, would require integrated health care networks — such as UPMC and Highmark, which offer medical treatment and health insurance — to accept the health plan of any carrier.

This runs counter to UPMC’s corporate strategy, which is to deny in-network access for most Highmark insurance customers at most UPMC facilities. That will happen after 2014, when the UPMC-Highmark contract expires and the region’s largest health care system no longer welcomes (with some exceptions) clients of the region’s largest health insurer.

UPMC has been open about its chosen course since Highmark became a hospital competitor with the newly formed Allegheny Health System. Both health industry giants have informed state officials, purchased newspaper ads and aired television commercials explaining their opposing positions. That’s fair game.

The attack on Mr. Christiana is different. UPMC, a nonprofit “public charity” under state law that solicits donations and enjoys tax exemptions, launched an aggressive, political-style assault on the lawmaker by sending a mailer to thousands of his constituents. UPMC executives claim they are not trying to unseat Mr. Christiana, but the piece has the style and tone of a campaign flier, focusing more on the legislator than on the legislation.

Over a photo of the lawmaker, the mailer says, “If you don’t like what’s going on in Washington, wait until you hear what some state politicians, like Representative Jim Christiana, want to do with your health care.” Actually, what Mr. Christiana and Mr. Frankel “want to do” is keep UPMC care accessible to the same Highmark customers who have it now.

The mailer also asks, why does Mr. Christiana want “to impose a government dictate on Western Pennsylvania’s health care” and “Do we want more government in health care?” Yet UPMC’s professed concern about more government rings hollow, since it did not oppose the Affordable Care Act, a government mandate that will create thousands of new UPMC patients.

Although UPMC executives said they are not playing politics, UPMC did make a choice, a political one in our view, to target the conservative co-sponsor Mr. Christiana, and not the liberal Mr. Frankel. Why? Because, as a UPMC representative said, it wanted to show Mr. Christiana’s constituents that, in UPMC’s view, he had abandoned his conservative principles.

UPMC said its forceful response to Mr. Christiana, whom it accused of working on behalf of Highmark and the Service Employees International Union, is only as tough as their ads against UPMC.

We disagree. It’s one thing for UPMC to speak out in opposing legislation. It’s another thing altogether for the tax-exempt institution to engage in a campaign-style attack.

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