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Code blue at UPMC: Tainted spending calls for emergency PR

| Sunday, May 23, 2010

Where are all of those photogenic Haitian orphans when you need them?

The question has to be reverberating through the Downtown headquarters of UPMC, the giant health care conglomerate once again in desperate need of the public relations equivalent of a defibrillator.

In January, the part of the paddles was played by 54 parentless kids in earthquake-ravaged Haiti. UPMC's participation in their rescue helped restore a pulse to a local image that had flatlined after the callous decision to shutter its hospital in struggling Braddock.

UPMC could use a few more orphans to parade before the cameras following the revelation it paid more than $10 million last year to companies and individuals with close ties to its directors and top executives.

That information, gleaned from Internal Revenue Service filings, first was reported in Friday's Trib .

Let's put that $10 million figure in perspective.

UPMC decided to close the Braddock hospital, the community's largest employer and only medical facility, because it was losing a staggering amount of money — an average of $4.5 million a year over the past several years.

That's less than half the amount UPMC found under its couch cushions just last year to dole out to family members of some of its highest-ranking officials — including CEO Jeffrey Romoff, chief counsel Robert Cindrich and board member Anne V. Lewis.

UPMC vice president of evasive explanations and excuses Paul Wood attempted the old statistical inevitability argument in defending the familial hiring practices.

Wood noted that because UPMC is Pittsburgh's largest employer, some of its employees naturally are going to be related to others on the UPMC payroll.

What he didn't note, perhaps because it was so obvious, is that the relatives of some UPMC employees are compensated at a significantly higher rate than the relatives of others.

For example, the data-entry clerk brother of the custodian who cleans the commodes at UPMC Presbyterian didn't get that $2.5 million advertising contract. That went to Romoff's brother.

The X-ray technician sister of the woman who inventories all of the medical waste bags• UPMC didn't pay her $264,000. That amount went to Romoff's daughter.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Here's the bottom line: UPMC no longer wanted to come up with the money to maintain a badly needed medical facility in a distressed community. Yet UPMC had no difficulty locating $10 million to funnel directly to those closely tied to the people who run it.

People long have believed UPMC is an acronym for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. But with the information contained in those IRS filings, it might better stand for Ugly Profiteering via Multiple Conflicts.

The health care giant's image is flatlining again. No doubt someone at UPMC is working the phones at this very moment, frantically searching for a Haitian orphan who isn't camera shy.

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