It seems like local politics has been all I've been thinking about for the last month or so leading up to the primary election and now that the primaries are over I have something new, but still local, to think about. Hopefully everyone has heard about the upcoming Altoona Regional Hospital/UPMC merger. You may not have heard much about it, no one has.
I was happy, yesterday afternoon, to get a call from Paula Stellabotte, who asked me to come and speak at the City Council meeting as a concerned community member. As a very concerned community member I did go and speak. My concerns were several. For starters, I, as many people, am concerned about what will happen if Altoona Regional becomes a UPMC hospital which accepts primarily UPMC insurance. According to recent reports, there 44,000 people in Blair County have some form of Highmark insurance. The concern I stated was that medical costs can be a huge financial strain on a family even when you have decent insurance. I cannot imagine what I would do if I really needed the hospital and suddenly the hospital in my city were considered Out-of-Network for insurance purposes. The hospital is a ten minute drive from my house. As far as I'm concerned, that's in my network.
From what I could tell most of the councilmen* shared our concerns. Whether that's through genuine concern or not liking being in the dark about something, who can tell. Councilman Butterbaugh seemed especially attentive.
After the public concerns portion of the meeting the councilmen had some discussion and shared some of their thoughts and concerns. Councilman Neugebauer expressed concern that while Highmark is a semi-national insurance company which might be accepted in - per his example - Florida. Meanwhile, UPMC is a regional insurance company and would it be as widely accepted outside the sphere of UPMC influence?
I think those of us that were there looking for our elected officials to get interested in doing something were pretty pleased. In the realm of unhelpful commentary, Councilman Kelley jumped into the ring with the Affordable Care Act. He wondered what would happen when more of the AFA kicks in what would happen, like with the insurance marketplace. He said that he that it wasn't clear whether either UPMC or Highmark would be participating in the insurance marketplace and what if people bought insurance that isn't accepted by local providers.
Let's be very clear about one thing: AFA is a red herring. This is about the UPMC merger. Don't let anyone muddy this issue. This issue is about UPMC and the Altoona Regional Hospital pushing through a merger that our community knows nothing about. It's about our community hospital merging with a hospital system in danger of losing its non-profit status, a system with unreasonably high prices, a system locked in a not very healthy competition with Highmark.
A hospital is a community institution. As a community, we deserve to know what changes this will bring to our future. As Paula Stellabotte said last night at the meeting, once this merger goes through it's done. The hospital won't be sold again in a year or two. This will likely be permanent. Let's not let this merger happen in the shadows.
If you're as concerned about this merger as I am, please visit AltoonaCares.org and sign the petition there to let UPMC and the Altoona Regional Hospital board and administration know that we deserve answers.
*Hey, I bet you were wondering what that asterisk was about earlier. Normally I might say "councilpersons", but with the Altoona City Council there's no need. It's literally "councilmen". Specifically, it's a group of middle-aged plus white guys. It's more than a little depressing.