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GOP senators hope to regulate UPMC-Highmark divorce

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By Chris Foreman
Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Republican state senators said on Monday they're planning informational hearings about insurance and health care issues arising from the dispute between UPMC and Highmark Inc.

Chairs for the Senate's banking and insurance committee and public health and welfare committee confirmed they intend to review the dissolving relationship between the hospital system and insurer. Highmark is moving forward with a plan to buy UPMC's chief rival, the West Penn Allegheny Health System, and UPMC wants to terminate its insurance contract with Highmark in June.

Sen. Don White, the banking and insurance committee chairman from Indiana, said his committee will look at how state officials might regulate the dispute.

The public health and welfare committee will focus on access to care, according to the committee chair, Sen. Patricia Vance, who represents York and Cumberland counties.

White said he believes a public forum will provide more transparency and a better understanding of the long-term effects of the quarrel. The dates and locations of the hearings haven't been finalized.

"Since this battle involves the dominant health care provider and the dominant health care insurer in the region, each move and every statement by either party has a ripple effect that impacts millions of people in Western Pennsylvania," said White, an insurance broker before he entered politics.

"The posturing, while typically a normal part of business negotiations, has caused serious anxiety and unease among consumers. The decisions made by these two entities impact health care in Western Pennsylvania to a degree unrivaled by any other."

Sen. Kim Ward, who serves on both committees, said there's a possibility that both entities could buy rural hospitals in the region and prevent each other from providing insurance. That could hurt competition and limit residents' medical options, the Hempfield Republican said.

"If a major hospital in a county ... is acquired by one of these major insurers, which could easily happen, the access to care for those people in those counties is greatly reduced," Ward said.

"They're either going to be forced to drive into Pittsburgh for their health care, or they're going to be forced into a plan that maybe wasn't their first choice to begin with."

"The plan for these hearings is to bring some certainty to these people to know that we are going to fight, that they do have a voice," she added. "It's not just going to be these two large entities, which we are so lucky to have because they're both really, really good.

"I just wish they'd come sit down at the table and fix this and get back to the mission of serving the people who live here."

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