Hospital system readies for new health care law

Luis Fábregas
| Thursday, Oct. 21, 2010

The recipe for a more stable future at West Penn Allegheny Health System includes building more accessible, low-cost ambulatory care centers that provide quality care, its CEO said Wednesday.

"We deliver care in a very high-cost environment," Dr. Christopher T. Olivia told about 100 professionals at a conference about health-care reform at Allegheny General Hospital in the North Side. "We need to push care out into lower-cost settings."

The struggling health network intends to open at least four ambulatory care centers in the region, Olivia said during an interview after his presentation.

He mentioned only one specific location -- Murrysville -- and said areas under consideration include the west and the North Side. A center in Peters is expected to open this year. The centers will include doctors' offices, both in primary care and specialty areas.

The conference, sponsored by The Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions, focused on the federal health law and its impact on the industry. Olivia said hospitals will be hard-hit by the law because it will slash key payments from federal programs. The law, which aims to provide health insurance coverage to uninsured Americans, will take effect in 2014, although parts of it have kicked in.

Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, the Democratic candidate for governor, said in a speech that he supports the law and an extension of a state program called adultBasic, which provides free or low-cost coverage for low-income adults. The program, which covers about 45,000 people, expires at the end of the year.

"The next governor is going to be facing a crisis," Onorato said. "This is no time to be throwing off 45,000 people off the insurance rolls."

State Attorney General Tom Corbett, the Republican candidate for governor, could not attend the event because of a prior commitment.

Both Olivia and Onorato expressed concern about the cost of providing health care, something that critics say is not addressed in the new law. Health spending in the United States was about $2.3 trillion in 2008, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Onorato said health-care costs for the county's 7,000 employees rose to $65 million from $35 million in the past three years.

"Some people blame it on insurance companies; some people blame it on health care-systems," Onorato said. "I wish I knew that answer -- what's driving the costs out of control."

The answer did not satisfy a Butler pediatrician, Dr. Rich Filiaggi, who pressed Onorato for a specific answer about containing costs.

"I'm frustrated that no one has identified what those costs are," Filiaggi said. "How can you fix a problem when you don't know what the problem is?"

Onorato said he wants to gather experts such as doctors and insurance executives to reach a consensus on how to address rising costs.

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