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Lawmakers accuse UPMC of political-style attacks over insurance bill

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By Brad Bumsted and Alex Nixon
Monday, Dec. 9, 2013, 2:54 p.m.

HARRISBURG — The attorney general should investigate UPMC because of political-style attacks targeting a Western Pennsylvania Republican's support for bills that would force UPMC to contract with health insurer Highmark Inc., two lawmakers said.

Reps. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver County, and Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, denounced mailings and robocalls paid for by UPMC as improper for a tax-exempt charity.

The campaign targeted constituents in Christiana's district and neighboring areas and attempted to link his support for the bills with the federal Affordable Care Act.

The mailers, which used Christiana's photo, tell readers if they “don't like what's going on in Washington, wait till you hear what some state politicians like Jim Christiana want to do to your health care.”

Christiana and Frankel co-sponsored two bills that would require all large health systems in the state to accept insurance from any carrier in the state.

“We should never have dollars from tax breaks going towards this type of material,” said Christiana, who with Frankel plans to ask Attorney General Kathleen Kane to investigate.

Joe Peters, a Kane spokesman, declined to comment.

UPMC spokesman Paul Wood said that “communicating directly to his constituents was an appropriate course of action.”

The robocalls, which Frankel and Christiana said targeted voters across the state, said the lawmakers were trying to “reduce health insurance competition and take away choices for consumers,” they said.

“I'm trying to recall when a nonprofit with ‘purely public charity' tax exemptions, that seeks charitable contributions, has ever launched this kind of a personal attack against a lawmaker. I think it's unprecedented,” Frankel said.

Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said it's unusual for nonprofit entities to take political efforts directly to voters. He said it seemed worthy that Kane take a look at UPMC's activity.

“They're not apolitical; they're engaged in lobbying,” he said of public charities in Pennsylvania. But, “They usually don't openly get engaged in electoral politics by going directly to voters. ... Therefore, I think it does raise some eyebrows.”

Terry Madonna, political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said he was not aware of any legal issue for UPMC because the mailing and robocalls didn't endorse a political candidate.

“It's rare or unheard of to see a corporation or nonprofit do that kind of ad,” Madonna said. “I've not heard of it.”

This latest campaign by UPMC is not its first to try to build opposition to the bills. UPMC in August tried to enlist its employees in Frankel's district to voice opposition to the bill before it was introduced.

“This legislation is government intervention at its worst, with a legislator choosing a winner in what should be a competitive market of hospitals and insurers,” UPMC said in an email to about 7,000 employees.

UPMC refuses to negotiate contracts that would set in-network payment rates for Highmark insurance customers using UPMC hospitals and doctors. When contracts expire at the end of 2014, Highmark customers will pay more costly out-of-network rates at UPMC.

Wood said Christiana “has clearly abandoned his so-called conservative credentials to promote a broad, intrusive government health care intervention bill designed solely to protect one dominant insurance monopoly.”

No hospital system or health insurer in the state, apart from Highmark, supports the legislation, Wood said, calling the bills anti-competitive and “unprecedented in that no state has ever enacted radical ‘any willing insurer' legislation.”

Christiana said he believes the UPMC attack will build support.

House bills 1621 and 1622 are set for a hearing before the House Health Committee on Dec. 18.

Brad Bumsted and Alex Nixon are Trib Total Media staff writers.

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