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UPMC enlists employees in latest Highmark fight

| Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013, 12:37 a.m.

As public criticism grows about its pending divorce from Highmark Health Services, UPMC is asking thousands of its employees to campaign against legislation that could force it to renew reimbursement contracts with the insurer.

Mustering employees to lobby lawmakers is a common political tactic, UPMC spokesman Paul Wood said.

“It's fair game,” said state Rep. Dan Frankel, one of two House members planning to introduce the bill.

“I've experienced that sort of effort by other organizations trying to push their agendas,” Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, said Monday. He said fewer than 10 UPMC employees contacted him, and he welcomes the chance to discuss health care issues with constituents.

UPMC, the largest private employer in the state with about 63,000 employees, sent emails to about 7,500 workers in the past two weeks, asking them to write to Frankel and Rep. Jim Christiana, a Beaver County Republican, telling them the bill they plan to introduce would hurt the hospital system, its patients and employees.

“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 the employee email, which the Tribune-Review obtained.

About 7,000 UPMC workers in Frankel's district received the email on Aug. 20, UPMC's Wood said.

“This is what a lot of companies do,” Wood said.

About 500 employees living in Christiana's district received the email two weeks ago. Christiana said no UPMC workers subsequently wrote to him.

“They're concerned about their profitability, their market share,” he said of the health giant. “And I'm concerned about patient access and a long-term solution.”

Employees “can choose what to do, and we're giving them the tools to do so if they choose,” Wood said. A link in the email enables workers to automatically send their representatives a message.

Frankel and Christiana said they expect to introduce the any-willing-payer measure in late September or early October. Lawmakers return from summer recess on Sept. 23.

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.

The battle between UPMC and Highmark in recent weeks has played out in television advertisements, prompting Gov. Tom Corbett to tell the health giants to tone down their mudslinging. Several Democratic lawmakers publicly criticized the companies and UPMC's unwillingness to contract with Highmark.

UPMC is considering sending emails to employees living in the district of state Sen. Randy Vulakovich, a Shaler Republican, because he might author a Senate version of the bill, Wood said.

Vulakovich, a House member who replaced former Sen. Jane Orie in an August 2012 special election, could not be reached for comment.

He sponsored a House bill credited with forcing UPMC last year to extend its contracts with Highmark. The House in December 2011 overwhelmingly passed that legislation, which would have given the state Insurance Commissioner greater power to intervene in disputes between hospitals and insurers and force binding arbitration if they could not reach resolution.

The bill signaled willingness by the state's elected officials to intervene in the UPMC-Highmark dispute, and five months later the hospital system and insurer announced the contract extension through 2014. Their breakup began when Highmark agreed to purchase West Penn Allegheny Health System, UPMC's competitor. The deal closed in April, creating Allegheny Health Network.

Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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