Union confident West Penn Allegheny's 12,000 employee pensions secure
By Alex Nixon
Published: Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Even though Highmark Inc. officials won't discuss it, West Penn Allegheny Health System union leaders are confident employee pensions will be preserved by the health care insurer.
Neal Bisno, president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, the statewide union that represents about 2,000 West Penn Allegheny nurses and other employees, said Highmark has agreed not to terminate the employee pension plans or push them onto the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. once it takes control of the troubled hospital system.
Bisno's comments came on Thursday, a day after Highmark issued a statement announcing that it and West Penn Allegheny had reached agreement on a new acquisition deal that “preserves the pensions of some 12,000 hospital system employees” and restructures the system's $726 million in bond debt.
“The pensions will be maintained and the liabilities will be the responsibility” of Highmark or the corporate entity that Highmark has created to take control of West Penn Allegheny, Bisno said.
The pensions are underfunded by about $276 million, which along with the bond debt have been a significant obstacle in Highmark gaining state approval of the acquisition.
Highmark spokesman Aaron Billger declined to comment.
Highmark could submit an updated filing with the state Insurance Department as early as Friday.
Rosanne Placey, spokeswoman for the department, said on Thursday that it had not received a new filing. She declined to comment on when Highmark would submit the filing.
As part of the deal announced Wednesday, Highmark will pay bondholders $635 million, representing 87.5 percent of what they are owed. The move drops the debt from West Penn Allegheny's books and frees up about $50 million a year that was going to debt payments.
Highmark is lining up bank financing to pay off the debt, according to people with knowledge of the deal who spoke with the Tribune-Review.
West Penn Allegheny's most recent financial statement, for the three months ended Sept. 30, lists the unfunded pension liability as $276.3 million. Bisno said that SEIU has recently analyzed West Penn Allegheny's pensions and believes the unfunded liability is “significantly overstated.” He declined to provide the union's findings.
The pension funds have been a drag on West Penn Allegheny's finances since the system's formation in 2001, according to a report released on Wednesday by Moody's Investors Service.
“In addition to operating losses and debt service on a high debt load, WPAHS's cash position has been held down by pension funding,” the Moody's report stated.
The lack of sufficient cash “prevented it from making necessary investments to compete,” Moody's said.
The system lost money on operations every year since 2001 except for 2005, Moody's said. “WPAHS's ability to compete with UPMC was severely compromised by a lack of capital resources to invest in facilities and other strategies,” the report stated.
Moody's has a negative outlook on Highmark's credit rating.
In a separate report published on Monday, Moody's analysts said Highmark has a “strong financial profile driven by its strong capital position and reinforced by a solid business profile.”
Highmark has bond debt of $1.1 billion, but has cash and cash equivalents of about $981 million and access to a line of credit of $125 million.
“Highmark's operating cash flows remain strong and combined with its cash balances, has sufficient cash available to meet its obligations,” Moody's Monday report stated.
Moody's analysts could not be reached on Thursday for comment on the updated deal with West Penn Allegheny bondholders.
Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Luis Fábregas contributed to this report.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- U.S. employers add 175K jobs despite harsh weather
- Disney to lay off 700 from interactive unit
- Google barge departs San Francisco to new home
- Bitcoin’s father said to be found
- ADT settles deception charges
- Stock, housing gains boost net worth
- Beef costs reach record amid persisting drought
- Obamacare enrollment has ‘lot of ground to cover’
- Alpha Natural Resources to pay record $227.5M in water pollution settlement
- Staples to shutter 225 stores as sales move online
- Silicon ‘Valley of haves, have-nots’