UPMC may want pain relief with Highmark merger's approval

Luis Fábregas
| Saturday, May 4, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Somewhere on the 62nd floor of the U.S. Steel building, UPMC President and CEO Jeffrey Romoff must be having a conniption.

His secret wish that nemesis Highmark Inc. would fail to acquire West Penn Allegheny Health System blew up this week when the deal won a key approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Insurance.

Highmark's big win is UPMC's big loss. The insurer's plan to build the Allegheny Health Network threatens UPMC's tight control over the region's health care services and costs. Romoff will never admit it, but the Highmark-West Penn Allegheny partnership is about to give him one colossal headache.

He has plenty of reasons to be aggravated. Let's start with the selection of the name Allegheny Clinic for the Highmark-owned physicians' organization. That's Clinic with a capital C, as in Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic, arguably the heavyweights among the nation's health care providers. Even though the word “clinic” seemed a bit confusing at first since some might think it's a facility versus a doctors group, it's actually a brilliant choice — both for its simplicity and connotation. The folks at Highmark are making clear they aim to attract the very best doctors and build a network that can stand alongside the most recognizable names in health care.

If not over that, you can bet Romoff has to be a bit indignant over Highmark's choice to lead its hospital network. John Paul, the newly appointed CEO of the Allegheny Health Network, used to be Romoff's right-hand man at UPMC.

The congenial and highly respected Paul engineered an unprecedented 10-year contract between UPMC and Highmark in 2002. He oversaw the transition of the former St. Francis Medical Center in Lawrenceville into the hands of Children's Hospital.

Paul “retired” (wink, wink) from UPMC in 2003, but everyone knows his relationship with Romoff had soured. While Paul has not worked at UPMC in a decade, it's fair to say he's intimately familiar with UPMC's tactics. He's smart and knows what he's doing. It may annoy Romoff and UPMC, but if anyone can inject life into West Penn Allegheny, it's John Paul.

There is, of course, one more aspect of this saga that UPMC certainly won't like. Allegheny Health Network is very capable of flourishing and being victorious. The network is filled with very talented physicians who have provided great care for decades. It is filled with thousands of workers who want nothing more than to provide health care choice to the people of Pittsburgh.

No one said it will be easy. West Penn Allegheny, the anchor of the new network, needs to make money. It needs to fill up its beds and perform more surgeries. But that's not an impossible goal.

UPMC's desire to eliminate West Penn Allegheny isn't new. In 2009, West Penn Allegheny filed a federal lawsuit in which it said a UPMC vice president had told physicians that it intended to “turn AGH into a parking lot,” referring to Allegheny General Hospital.

If the parking lot comment is true, and I personally have no reason to think it wasn't, the person who said it might have to eat his words. It's hard to imagine that anyone would let that happen.

Western Pennsylvania needs West Penn Allegheny as much as we need UPMC. Because at the end of day, you don't want to be told where you have to get your health care.

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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