Oh, Henry: Who will rid us of the UPMC-Highmark dispute?

| Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

“He who has health, has hope, and he who has hope, has everything,” said Thomas Carlyle, the 19th-century Scottish philosopher and writer. And that pretty much sums up the principle behind the decades-long drive for guaranteed health care for all Americans.

As ObamaCare moves slowly but inexorably forward, the national debate surrounding implementation is now more political theater than anything else. Soon, most questions will be settled and one side will be vindicated while the other will look foolish.

Still, there are smaller political vignettes, also swirling around health care at the state and local levels, the outcomes of which are not so certain. They are the stuff of which political futures are made. One is peculiar to Pittsburgh.

The nature of the problem is best understood by recalling the utter exasperation of Henry II, who had appointed his pal Thomas Becket to be archbishop of Canterbury, only to be disappointed at every turn. At wit's end, Henry finally queried, “Who will rid me of the turbulent priest?”

While the circumstances are vastly different, Pittsburghers are feeling just as exasperated with UPMC and Highmark. The region enjoys a wealth of excellent health care, all subsidized by the taxpayers, and the people are entitled to access it all. Instead, they are treated to an ad nauseam advertising and legal war.

Like medieval forces catapulting boulders at each other, these two have filled the airwaves with ads and actors feigning concern over this phony issue or that, each playing on emotions, fear-mongering in the most polite ways. It's all crap.

And people are on to them. “CBS This Morning” challenged UPMC's claims of charitable purpose in a special report this May that cited a 2011-12 profit of nearly $1 billion, a $6 million chief-executive salary, a dozen administrators making over a million dollars, luxurious executive offices, plush dining facilities and corporate jets.

And no advertising campaign could ever purge the stain on UPMC's corporate soul resulting from its decision to close Braddock Hospital. That hospital, in that place, serving those citizens in need, might have been the only legitimate claim that UPMC had to charitable status. And UPMC tore it down.

For two public officials, this is low-hanging political fruit. Both Gov. Tom Corbett and Attorney General Kathleen Kane have the legal authority to bring UPMC and Highmark into line, force an agreement that would end this childishness and put the public at ease.

For Corbett, it would be an easy plus in a tough re-election fight, helping him reconnect with his critical base in the Southwest. But it will take more than public scolding. And for Kane, already showing signs of a future contender, it is an opportunity to become an overnight player where she is still essentially unknown.

The stage is set for political heroics. The public is pining for a savior. And the good people of Western Pennsylvania have one question for their elected officials:

Who will rid us of this turbulent hospital dispute?

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (SabinoMistick@aol.com).

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