Monday, July 22, 2013

Meeting John Hanger

The 2014 Gubernatorial primary season may not have officially started yet, but that hasn't stopped one man from getting out on the road to get the word out about his candidacy.  The man I speak of is John Hanger.  You may have heard about him recently after several news outlets wrote about his proposal to legalize medical marijuana and decriminalize the possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana by 2017.  While I may have heard his name in passing, I myself hadn't really paid much attention to him until last week when a friend of mine asked about Mr. Hanger's chances.  Funny enough, last night I was informed that John Hanger would be stopping through Blair County and that he'd be in front of the County Courthouse talking to the public today and so I got a chance to meet the man himself and get a better sense of who he is and what he's about.

John Hanger, talking to news media down the street from the Blair County Courthouse
Up to this point, all I've really heard about John Hanger is his stance on marijuana which is, really, not all that revolutionary.  People tend to get either really excited about pro-legalization candidates or they become suddenly diametrically opposed to them.  I'm not saying that John Hanger is going to be the guy for PA Democrats, but he's got other ideas that I think are far more important to consider.

For one thing, he's apparently focusing very strongly on public schools.  He pointed out that Governor Corbett's crusade to steal money from schools (that's my wording by the way, not his) not only adversely affects schools, but taking state money away from schools forces schools to have to raise taxes.  Meanwhile, schools are cutting classes that are - erroneously - viewed as extraneous.  Hanger also pointed out that several charter schools in PA have been accused of stealing money, but still hold their charters.  Beyond that, he states that 70% of charter schools in Pennsylvania are not meeting federal math and reading standards.  I haven't been able to confirm that number specifically, but I did find that a recent study showed that PA is in the bottom three nationwide for charter school performance.

John Hanger would like to see the Pennsylvania state government contribute "close to 50% of education" funding.  He'd like to see Pennsylvania stop spending so much money on charter schools and to hold charter schools accountable just as we would any other school.
Hanger, talking with locals

During the question and answer portion of his appearance a member of the local media asked him whether he thought it would be beneficial to him to be so specific in his policy ideas so early on.  Hanger said that he feels that voters are tired of politicians coming out with vague promises and no substance to back it up.  He pointed out that he's currently polling 7 points ahead of Governor Corbett, although he also point out, "each and every one of you could be ahead of Corbett if you were polled."

I can't say that chances look great for John Hanger.  He seems like a nice guy and he's got some really great ideas and the specifics to back them up.  If only that were all you needed to win a political race.  Hanger recognizes that he's got a hard road ahead though.  When a local man wished him good luck Hanger replied, "You get lucky when you work hard."  

If you'd like to take a closer look at John Hangers positions, you can check out his website here.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Not Defending the Indefensible

In Altoona right now there are some people that aren't very happy with AG Kathleen Kane because she didn't stand in the way of the takeover of Altoona Hospital by UPMC.  Personally, I think that she didn't have grounds to stop the "merger" *cough...takeover...cough*, and I also think she went much further than she had to in stating that ARHS is a community hospital and that UPMC has to maintain the ability of all community members to access it.  She did what she had to and she put UPMC on notice, which, as far as I'm concerned, was more than she had to do.

For me, Kathleen Kane is just one win after the next.  I'm not saying she can do no wrong, everybody - and most certainly every political figure - is going to disappoint sooner or later.  I'm still waiting for AG Kane to disappoint though, and I now know that one issue on which she will not disappoint is marriage equality.

Picture from Delware Daily Times

Several days ago the Pennsylvania ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Pennsylvania's marriage law which states that marriage is a a civil contract between a man and a woman and which declares that same-sex marriages entered into elsewhere are void in Pennsylvania.  The ACLU filed the suit on behalf of 23 plaintiffs; ten couples, two children of same-sex parents, and one widow.  The lawsuit names both Governor Tom Corbett and AG Kathleen Kane as defendants, but Kane stated yesterday that she would not defend the law.
"I cannot ethically defend the constitutionality of Pennsylvania's version of DOMA as I believe it to be wholly unconstitutional," 
Kane was, of course, labelled almost immediately by Republicans as not doing her constitutional duties because of her personal beliefs.  Of course the irony of that is really almost too much to handle since it was just a few weeks ago that Daryl Metcalfe (R-Crazytown) wouldn't let a fellow Representative speak because what the Representative in question was going to say was "against God".  In fact, PA General Counsel James Schultz simply could believe that Kane wouldn't defend the law "merely" based on her personal beliefs.  Newsflash for Mr. Schultz and other similarly minded PA Republicans, it is also the duty of the Attorney General to review the legality of proposed laws.  Now, clearly Kane wasn't in office when this law was enacted, but if she feels that it's unconstitutional then why should she waste taxpayer dollars defending it?  

The real Republican sour grapes are most likely from the fact that now the defense of this law, this law created based on some people's personal beliefs, will fall to Governor Tom Corbett.  This situation is a stinker for Corbett, whose poll numbers are in the toilet.  Between telling women to just close their eyes and being unable to find a Latino, Corbett couldn't ask for much worse than being forced to choose whether to defend Pennsylvania's increasingly unpopular marriage law.   Corbett will absolutely defend the law, since he is an ardent supporter of rampant inequality.  I'm not sure if it will hurt his numbers, but it certainly won't help, which is just as good for whoever his Democratic opponent ends up being.  

I'll be watching this lawsuit to see how it unfolds.  Republicans are saying that it is circumventing the democratic process, but I say that challenging a law through the court system is something that's built into our democracy.  It's checks and balances in action.  Just because a law was voted on by our elected representatives doesn't mean that it either reflects the will of the people or that it's necessarily constitutional, as we've seen recently in the case of DOMA.  Whether or not Pennsylvania's marriage law will be ruled unconstitutional is hard to say.  This court case isn't going to be quick or easy and maybe Representatives like Brian Sims will make this lawsuit unnecessary by passing marriage equality into law in Pennsylvania, we'll see. 

What I do know is that, in a state where you can be fired just for being gay, the 23 plaintiffs in this suit are heroes.  They are standing up for their freedom to love and to have that love recognized and to receive all the same legal benefits that I receive as a woman married to a man.  Recently in this state two men who have been together for 45 years had to legally take on the status of parent and adopted child to ensure that they would not be subject to discriminatory inheritance laws.  Pennsylvania's current law enforces a discriminatory view that those two men who have been life partners for 45 years have a relationship that is somehow less than mine and less than any other opposite sex couple.  If marriage is, as Pennsylvania law states, a civil contract, then whether that contract is between a man and a woman or two men or two women is absolutely irrelevant.  The idea that same-sex marriage is wrong is one based purely on religious prejudices which have no place in a civil contract and I look forward to a day when this kind of prejudice is no longer enshrined in the laws of the Commonwealth that I love.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Townhall Meeting: Screaming at the Wall

Last evening I attended the better-late-than-never (I guess) town hall meeting where community members could ask questions and share concerns about the now finalized (seriously this time) UPMC-ARHS merger.  The meeting was held at Altoona Area High School's senior high auditorium.  Nearly 200 people attended.  I heard the number 197 tossed out, but I can't confirm that definitively.

Let's just start with the disappointment.  UPMC and the brand new UPMC Altoona declined to send a representative that would actually answer questions.  Jerry Murray sent someone to collect written questions, with the promise that they'll be gotten back to in the near future.  They didn't have nothing to say, however.  UPMC Altoona sent a statement which was read by Councilman Butterbaugh.  In the statement, the hospital notes that Jerry Murray was not at all involved in the scheduling of this event, by which I guess we were to take to mean that it wasn't their fault they weren't there.  Happily, Dave Butterbaugh pointed out that while this was technically true, that Jerry Murray and UPMC had made it clear from the beginning that they did not want to be involved in this town hall meeting at all.  

Hey look, there are the empty chairs where UPMC and Altoona Hospital representatives should be!

By this time, hopefully, you'll have read the Altoona Mirror article that talks about the meeting.  It got some things right.  The article got wrong a couple things.  First, it's Gillian Kratzer.  That's Gillian, pronounced with a 'j' sound, and Kratzer: K-R-A-T-Z-E-R.  Krawt-zer.  Secondly, and probably more importantly, I am not a hospital employee.  I'd like to point out that I didn't say that I was a hospital employee, and of course no one asked me either. 

What I talked about briefly was the lack of transparency, the lack of communication, and Jerry Murray/UPMC's near complete disregard for the concerns of the community that supports this hospital.  As Attorney General Kane pointed out, Altoona Hospital is a community non-profit hospital and, as such, it doesn't have to pay taxes.  It is involved in the PILOT program (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes), wherein it would make a payment, the amount ostensibly determined by the hospital, to the city in lieu of taxes.  Mayor Schirf, however, pointed out that last year the city of Altoona didn't receive any money from ARHS and this while the city is in Act 47.  If we the community members support this hospital and pay for this hospital we deserve  at the very least to be in the loop about what's going on at the hospital.  Of course, it seems that Jerry Murray isn't interested in involving more people than necessary since, as he told a nurse who asked why there weren't a few employees on the board when discussing the merger, "too many people make it messy."

The Mirror article touched some important points, but I think it also missed some really important stories.  One story that it skimmed over lightly was Cindy Cromie's.  Ms. Cromie is from Erie and she was a medical transcriptionist at what is now UPMC Hammond.  When UPMC took over there they forced all their medical transcriptionists into a job with a different company called Nuance.  They would be doing the same jobs for half the money, less benefits, and health insurance at double and triple the cost.  What really struck me about her story is that when medical transcriptionists asked if they could apply for unemployment they were told that the unemployment office would be informed that they were offered jobs and consequently that if they wanted unemployment that they would have to fight for it.  So much for good paying, quality jobs.  

Another fairly shocking story was that of a nurse from Pittsburgh, a Highmark subscriber, who was turned away from her doctor of seven years because she was a Highmark subscriber.  Even after she offered to pay for her visits out-of-pocket, she was still told that her doctor - as a UPMC doctor - could no longer see her as a patient.  Let that sink in for a minute.  In Pittsburgh right now there are people who can't even pay money to see the doctor of their choice because of the UPMC-Highmark feud.  

Apparently Mirror reporter William Kibler spoke to Dave Cuzzolina after the meeting and Cuzzolina had this to say:
"I'm not sure whose purpose it serves to turn the community against something that has so many positives."
It's great that UPMC is bring so many positive things to our community, but that doesn't mean that we should ignore the possible negatives.  Nor, it should be pointed out, has anyone been "turned against" anything.  If Altoona Hospital administration had it's way they'd have done this with no fanfare or notice at all until the ink was dry and the deal was done.  That's nearly where we all came into this as it is.  At this point, I'm not sure what it's going to take to make UPMC generally and UPMC Altoona specifically understand that "don't worry about it" is not an answer to anyone's questions.  The continued disrespect that the hospital board has shown to this community is troubling to say the very least.  

In the opening statement made by Rep. McGinnis, he expressed concern about the idea of a hospital also being an insurer and the conflict of interest since - in his mind - your insurer is supposed to be your advocate.    Personally, I think that to say that insurance companies have our best interests at heart is somewhat naive.  As Rep. McGinnis is a Highmark subscriber, he has a vested interest in seeing that UPMC Altoona continues to accept Highmark insurance.  

The final speaker of the evening was a social worker who I think wrapped the meeting up appropriately when she expressed gratitude and concern at the fact that several people traveled from places hours away to share their stories about their experiences with UPMC.  We heard from Cindy Cromie the medical transcriptionist from Erie, a Pittsburgh Controller, and a nurse from Pittsburgh who was denied access to her doctor.  

This merger, this takeover, has happened.  Now we wait and see whether UPMC plays fair or whether, a year from now, Highmark subscribers will be left out in the cold.  We heard the term "good faith" quite a few times from our state representatives on the dais.  I don't know about anyone else, but I have very little faith in the "good faith" of UPMC at this point.  

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

UPMC Takes Over, Altoona Mirror Rejoices

If you're a regular reader you'll know that I've mentioned UPMC a couple times in recent months.  Were it not for being on the Blair Dem's Public Access show, Plain Speaking, I might not know anything about the Altoona Regional Hospital System/UPMC merger except the magical and glorious things I heard about it in the Altoona Mirror.  Had I heard about the merger there I would only know what Mirror writer, William Kibbler, wanted to tell me about it, which is basically that it's the best thing ever and there's no downside and there's no need to ask questions, this is great for everyone.

Well, the merger has gone through.  There is apparently at least one UPMC Altoona banner up at the hospital and the fight is over.  Well, mostly.  The Altoona Mirror didn't mention it in their most recent article, but as far, as I can ascertain, the Attorney General hasn't actually approved the merger yet.  Clearly "UPMC Altoona" is either very optimistic or knows something that the public has yet to be privy to, but when I called the Antitrust office at the Attorney General's office they told me that they were as yet unable to comment on that merger.  According to the Mirror though, it's all coming up roses.

Today's article on the merger was a gleeful celebration of the soon-to-be actually official UPMC Altoona.  Tucked into that piece, however, was this a little tidbit that seemed trivial to Willam Kibbler, but sounded like something to me.  He talked to two employees, an IT guy and a registered cardiovascular invasive specialist who expressed these concerns:
"Still, both are leery about the possibility that the acquisition could reduce their benefits, including their retirement package.But they're young enough to move on, if necessary, to cement those benefits, they said."   Fusion with UPMC Comes to Fruition, Altoona Mirror 
Oh well, they're young enough to move on if the benefits suck.  Well that's great for them, but what does it say for the Altoona region?  This region can't afford to say "c'est la vie" to young people moving out of the region for better pay and benefits.  This calls to mind a month or so ago when I visited the hospital with other concerned citizens and Dave Cuzzolino, Director of Marketing and Communications, told us that UPMC keeps costs down by paying their doctors and nurses less.  And this kind of took me into a long conversation with a friend about how Altoona, as a city, likes to shoot itself in the foot as regards publicizing their businesses and attracting people and opportunities into the city.  Maybe that's a whole other article.

In any case, if you haven't been paying attention to the articles about the UPMC merger, here are some of the titles (chronologically):

Antitrust Concerns With UPMC Debated
Petition Protesting Hospital Merger Delivered to Hospital Brass
CEO: Hospital On Target For Merger
ARHS Votes to Join UPMC
UPMC's Altoona Situation Unique
Doctor In Erie Says Fears Unfounded
Hospital Becomes UPMC Altoona

Throughout the articles there's a continuing argument in favor of the merger, pushing that people who are afraid of the merger are needlessly fearful.  People, like the roughly 70,000 insured by Highmark, have nothing to worry about.  Personally, I think that we are rightly concerned, and so are employees of the Altoona Regional Health System...excuse me, UPMC Altoona.  As WTAJ reports, Children's Hospital President Christopher Gessner, who is soon to sit on the new UPMC Altoona board, "can't give a 100% guarantee on job security for employees."  He worries about the pressure to reduce the cost of healthcare.  If UPMC Pittsburgh is anything to go by, they'll be reducing costs on the backs of the nurses, doctors, and other staff of the hospital.  

There will be a community forum of sorts at the Altoona Senior High School Auditorium on July 9 at 6pm.  If you're an interested community member with questions, you should certainly attend.  I hope to be there, if nothing else to see if we finally get any concrete answers beyond the usual "we'll try to work with Highmark" and "no really, for the first year nothing will change at all!"  I'm left wondering what the healthcare landscape in Blair County will look like a year from now.  UPMC talks a good game about competition, but I think that if you asked people in the Allegheny area you'd hear a different tune regarding UPMC's actions when it comes to healthy competition.  In the meantime, I'll be interested to hear whether the AG has actually approved the merger and whether the AG's office will issue some sort of statement explaining their decision, whatever it may be.