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.