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Is UPMC giving Braddock the shaft?

| Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009

That new multimillion-dollar entrance to UPMC Braddock certainly looks spiffy.

You might want to go to the venerable old hospital and check out the significant improvements UPMC completed just four months ago. After all, according to an Allegheny County Economic Development Department document, you helped pay for them.

Just don't dally. The medical facility that has served the Mon Valley since 1906 will close at the end of January.

Citing $27 million in losses at the hospital over the past six years, UPMC announced Friday that it was shuttering the facility, fancy new facade and all.

Forgive those who live and work in struggling Braddock for feeling UPMC essentially is applying a pillow and forcible pressure to the gasping face of a critically ill community.

"I was getting excited with all of the remodeling they were doing up there," said Al Boss, the owner of A-Boss Opticians, a Braddock Avenue staple for nearly five decades. "But to hear the news (Friday), well, that was just heartbreaking. I fear for the future of the borough."

The fallout from the closure announcement has Boss and others pondering the following questions:

• Can UPMC afford to keep the hospital open?

Certainly. The Braddock hospital's losses are relative peanuts to a health-care juggernaut reporting $213 million in operating revenue in 2008-09 — an increase of $29 million over the previous fiscal year.

Consider this: The $27 million the medical facility lost amounts to $4.5 million annually. UPMC is so awash in money that it can afford to pay that amount to just one of its 50,000 employees.

CEO Jeffrey Romoff made $4.5 million in salary and benefits last year.

• Should UPMC keep the hospital open?

A strong case can be made that the hospital shouldn't close. Curiously enough, UPMC is making it.

UPMC's own Web site contains an assertion from the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania that the Braddock hospital generates $124 million annually in regional economic benefit.

In that context, the $4.5 million the hospital supposedly is losing each year doesn't seem like a particularly large sum, does it?

• Why would UPMC officials spend millions renovating a building they obviously were preparing to shutter?

The county development department contends $10 million was spent on the entrance and upgrading the hospital's parking area. State taxpayers supposedly paid $3 million of that via a Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program.

UPMC spokesman Paul Wood disputed the $10 million figure, saying the renovations cost considerably less. He claimed that although the hospital was awarded the state grant, "We never did draw down that money."

Odd, then, that UPMC's Web site credits the redevelopment program for being a partner in the entrance project.

Why would UPMC even consider making such a large investment in a doomed facility?

"We did what we needed to do to demonstrate we were serving the Braddock community," Wood said.

Forgive people in Braddock if they don't see it that way. Forgive them if they feel UPMC just delivered them a shiny new entrance not to a hospital but an elevator shaft.

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