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Highlands pursues session with Fayette officials

| Friday, March 1, 2013, 10:48 a.m.
Employees (from left) Pam Philburn, Karen Blocker and Marcy Ozorowski sign a petition circulating Highlands Hospital, collecting signatures for the Fayette County Commissioners to meet with hospital administration. Highlands Hospital administration wants to discuss the awarding of a Value Behavioral Contract to another facility in Fayette and what economic impact it has on Highlands Hospital as well as the Connellsville Area. Evan R. Sanders | Daily Courier

The conditions for a meeting that Highlands Hospital administrators seek with Fayette County officials regarding a Value Behavioral Health contract awarded to Uniontown Hospital remain under apparent debate.

Highlands employees have demonstrated at Connellsville City Council and attended two county commissioners' meetings, expressing concerns about hospital employees' job security. Workers recently began a petition drive.

“We the undersigned, urge the commissioners of Fayette County to immediately schedule a meeting with the administration of Highlands Hospital to discuss the process of the awarding of another VBH contract within the county and its economic impact on our facility and community,” the petition reads.

Marcy Ozorowski, a Highlands employee, recently presented the commissioners with a copy of the petition containing 500 signatures.

In an email, she characterized the requested meeting as “private.”

“We don't need our competition there,” she said.

A drop in inpatient admissions has forced Highlands Hospital to cut employee hours, Ozorowski said.

“We are the second-largest employer in the city. The economic impact on the loss of jobs would be devastating,” she said.

Highlands CEO Michelle Cunningham and spokeswoman Vickie Meier did not return calls requesting comment.

Hospital administrators and legal counsel have sought to meet with the commissioners without Uniontown Hospital representatives.

Highlands Hospital contends that the March contract between Virginia-based Value Behavioral Health and Uniontown Hospital was improperly awarded because commissioners didn't approve it. Highlands previously had been the county's exclusive provider of the services through the HealthChoices program.

Highlands Hospital attorney Dan Rullo said commissioners have indicated that they will meet with Highlands' representatives only if Uniontown Hospital representatives are present.

“We have issues we would like to address. Uniontown Hospital has no role in those discussions,” Rullo said.

“I have advised (the commissioners) this should be a public meeting,” Fayette County solicitor Ken Burkley said on Thursday. “My understanding is the commissioners would like to have it all hashed out in public.”

Melissa Mekewsky, chief counsel with the Pennsylvania News Media Association, said that any time a quorum or more of an elected body is present and discussing agency business, the Sunshine Act applies and requires a public meeting.

“Moreover, even if the Sunshine Act did not apply, a private meeting between the county commissioners and a business in the community could give the appearance of impropriety or preferential treatment, and most elected officials would not readily agree in light of that consideration,” Mekewsky said in an email.

Attorney Lawrence J. Tabas, counsel for the HealthChoices program, told commissioners the contract “is consistent with, and does conform to, the applicable legal requirements for provider contracting for the program.”

He said that contract, “just as all other provider contracts for the program, does not require county commissioner approval” because the county is not a party to those agreements.

Burkley said the commissioners “had nothing to do with” the contract.

An attorney who investigated for Highlands concluded proper procedures were not followed.

In an earlier letter to Burkley, Rullo termed the “Tabas memorandum” a “shield for the commissioners to not take official action in ... ratification or approval” of the contract.

Rullo, the attorney for Highlands in the case, said he will present hospital board members with information he has sought from the county through the Freedom of Information Act regarding the contract.

The board will determine if they are willing to meet with county officials, he said, “under restricted” conditions.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com.

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