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UPMC, city need dialogue

| Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Not to rain on Bill Peduto's parade, but here's one word that ought to give him pause: UPMC.

One of the biggest headaches that awaits the city's mayor-elect is the unresolved lawsuit by the city against the region's largest employer. Peduto inherits the mess from lame-duck Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who eagerly jumped on the “Let's bash UPMC” bandwagon by challenging the nonprofit's tax-exempt status.

Ravenstahl, who hopefully gets his medical care at Allegheny Health Network, is adamant that UPMC ought to pay payroll and property taxes. He and other critics say UPMC is not a public charity and doesn't donate enough services to people who can't afford them.

UPMC has responded by saying the lawsuit is rooted in “baseless allegations” and has called the entire thing “shameful” and “bizarre.” They've gone as far as to accuse Ravenstahl of filing the lawsuit to improve his public image and “divert attention from scandalous public reports of his precarious legal predicament.”

Ouch.

This will not be an easy problem to resolve, Mr. Peduto. Along with its whopping $10 billion in revenue, UPMC has amassed an army of critics who no doubt will encourage Peduto to fight the good fight. As for UPMC, well, that revenue figure should be indicative of how much money it has to spend on lawyers.

Councilman Peduto is on record calling on UPMC to be accountable to its patients and workers. He has said UPMC hospitals should be open to all, regardless of what insurance they carry. And he has voiced the concerns of union leaders that some of UPMC's service workers are underpaid.

These are, indeed, serious issues that warrant deliberate and thoughtful attention. It is way too simplistic to get on a soapbox and demand that UPMC do this or that without analyzing and understanding what's at stake. I get that UPMC is not as popular as the Rubber Duck, and the letters atop the U.S. Steel building are pompous at best. I also get that UPMC dreams up arguments so laughable its own employees snicker in disbelief (Oh wait, UPMC argues in court it has no employees).

But if Peduto is smart (and I have no reason to doubt that he is), he will stay out of the courtroom. Unless, of course, he wants to see thousands of taxpayer dollars wasted on attorneys' fees in a long, protracted civil litigation.

Surely, Peduto understands that good leaders are good negotiators who find creative ways to solve problems. Good leaders don't allow problems to linger for years. That's exactly what would happen if this lawsuit prevails. UPMC no doubt would spend millions on an army of attorneys who would drag out this drama for the duration of Peduto's four-year term.

Peduto should send UPMC execs a nice email and invite them over for beer and pizza. They can roll up their sleeves and talk about the future of Pittsburgh and how, as Peduto said on the night of his victory, “we're the next great American city.” They can brainstorm ideas for how to make that happen so Pittsburgh doesn't become the next Detroit.

The focus should not be on subpoenas and affidavits. It should be on constructive solutions and achievable goals. Above all, this is a problem that should be addressed with respect. If anyone can do that, let's hope it's Peduto.

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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