When the deal that extended the relationship between UPMC and Highmark was announced a month ago, both sides seemed to accept that it would mean going their separate ways on Jan. 1, 2015.
But Gov. Tom Corbett, who was credited with helping reach that deal, didn't see it that way.
During Friday morning's taping of the KD/PG Sunday Edition television show that airs at 8:30 a.m. Sunday, Mr. Corbett said he wants the two sides to continue to work on a longer-term deal and that he will continue to put pressure on them do so.
"As I was talking to people working behind the scenes ... it never left my mind that these are two rather large nonprofits that seem to have lost their focus on the service to the community that your nonprofit status gives you -- their charitable status -- and it's one of the reasons that I continue to tell both sides, if you don't fix this, we will in Harrisburg," he said.
Even though they now have an agreement that runs to Dec. 31, 2014, he said: "That doesn't mean the pressure is going to be taken off" and pressure for a new, longer-term deal could come not just from the Legislature and the governor, but from the Pittsburgh business community.
"I do not understand this termination at that point in time. I think that these [are] both nonprofits serving southwestern Pennsylvania and they should not forget they serve the people," he said.
Those statements are significant because though it was Mr. Corbett who formally announced the agreement between UPMC and Highmark on May 2, he has never previously explained what he thought the deal meant, whether it was a final deal between the two that would result in a parting of the ways, or a method to buy more time to strike a longer deal.
There is little appetite elsewhere in the Capitol to let the agreement die come 2015, either.
House Democrats may introduce a new bill -- similar to one approved with bipartisan support in December -- giving the state insurance commissioner more power to intervene in disputes between the health care giants. The December measure, authored by Rep. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, had Senate support too before it was put on ice by the UPMC-Highmark extension.
Echoing Mr. Corbett's statements, Mr. Vulakovich said Friday he was wary of getting government involved in the matter and would rather let the companies reach contract agreements on their own. But if there is no sign of movement over the next two years he said it may force legislators back into the breach on behalf of affected constituents.
"Either you take care of it or we will have to," he said of the health care institutions. "I would rather not have the Legislature involved, but you have to look at the people and not let them be hurt."
Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, Pa., who chairs the Senate's insurance committee and was also credited with helping reach the agreement in May, said UPMC and Highmark officials both told him after the agreement was struck that they thought this was a final agreement.
But the governor's comments may reflect the same reality that Mr. White has been explaining to people ever since the deal was announced a month ago.
"Everyone around here and elsewhere have been patting me on the back telling me what a great job I did," he said, "and I keep telling them, 'All we did was kick the can down the road two years. There's a lot of intangibles that could blow this thing to smithereens.' "
One of those things is the pending attempt by Highmark to buy West Penn Allegheny Health System, a move that led to UPMC declaring last year that it would never strike another deal with Highmark because it was now a direct health care competitor.
"Maybe the governor is thinking he's not as positive as some about Highmark's chances of buying West Penn, and, if not, then there's going to have to be another deal" between UPMC and Highmark, Mr. White said.
But there may be a second calculation in the governor's comments, he said.
Mr. Corbett is running for re-election in 2014, and, "if this thing sprouts its head in an election year, look out Loretta! All bets are off," Mr. White said. "If I were running against the governor, that would be good fodder, saying the government has to solve this and make them work out a deal."
UPMC spokesman Paul Wood was out of town and unavailable for comment Friday.
But Highmark spokesman Michael Weinstein said that despite what Mr. White may have been told last month, Highmark's position has always been that "this deal does not preclude the possibility that both sides couldn't extend the agreement."
Will that happen?
"It's hard to see out 2 1/2 years," Mr. Weinstein said. "But we are committed to continuing to develop an alternative provider system, and we're continuing to move forward to improve the health care system in our region."
Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette or 412-263-2579. Timothy McNulty: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1581. First Published June 2, 2012 4:15 AM