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Pittsburgh City Council approves UPMC's $400M plan to expand Mercy hospital

Bob Bauder
| Tuesday, July 31, 2018, 6:12 p.m.
A rendering of the Mercy Vision and Rehabilitation Hospital planned for UPMC’s Mercy Hospital complex in Uptown.
A rendering of the Mercy Vision and Rehabilitation Hospital planned for UPMC’s Mercy Hospital complex in Uptown.

Pittsburgh City Council on Tuesday approved UPMC’s plans for a $400 million expansion of UPMC Mercy hospital following a sometimes raucous meeting lasting five hours and 30 minutes in which speakers badgered, threatened and pleaded with members to oppose the project.

Thirty-seven residents, union members and community activists spoke in opposition to UPMC’s plans for the vision and rehabilitation hospital at its Mercy complex in Uptown, demanding the hospital giant allow employees to unionize, pay more in wages and accept all patients, with or without insurance.

They panned an 11th hour agreement that Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle of the Hill District negotiated with UPMC, in which UPMC agreed to provide an addiction clinic, mental health services and minority job opportunities.

The project passed by a 7-2 vote with Councilwomen Darlene Harris of Spring Hill and Deb Gross of Highland Park voicing strong and lengthy opposition. Gross described the project as a “luxury eye care hospital” and urged council to hold off on a vote until UPMC agrees to public demands. Harris said she objected because UPMC won’t treat seniors with Highmark’s Medicare Advantage insurance after June 2019, among other things.

“I think UPMC can do better,” Gross said.

UPMC plans a state-of-art research and treatment center for eye ailments headed by a world-renowned ophthalmologist, Dr. José-Alain Sahel. The project is part of a $2 billion system wide expansion UPMC announced last year.

“UPMC appreciates today’s 7-2 City Council vote after their careful consideration,” UPMC spokesman Paul Wood said. “We look forward to moving ahead with construction of the UPMC Vision and Rehabilitation Hospital at UPMC Mercy and continuing our work on initiatives to benefit the Uptown and Hill District neighborhoods and residents.”

Speakers described UPMC as a for-profit corporation and criticized Lavelle’s agreement with UPMC, saying he alone negotiated it without community representation.

“Why would council members be so eager to reward an organization that abuses its nonprofit status?” asked Nan Alexander Dowiak of Lawrenceville. “UPMC is a faux nonprofit. Why would council members be willing to overlook the abysmal labor record of UPMC?”

UPMC officials who attended the meeting declined to comment on the criticism.

Many in the crowd threatened to oust council members who supported the project during upcoming elections. They booed and shouted criticisms from their seats at times when council members voiced support for the hospital.

Several in the crowd accused Lavelle of having a conflict of interest because his wife serves on the board at Mercy.

Lavelle said his wife is a community appointed representative who receives no compensation and files annual conflict of interest statements with the state.

“For me, there actually is no conflict of interest,” he said.

He described Mercy hospital as the only health care facility that offers care to poverty stricken and uninsured residents. The new hospital, he said, would serve as an anchor for development expected in Uptown, the Hill District and South Oakland. He said the city’s only Catholic hospital nearly closed a decade ago and that UPMC has managed to keep it open.

“I decided that I could not afford to let that hospital close and that I would need to do whatever was necessary for that hospital to stay open to service the poor, to service young black people who get shot and have nowhere else to go, to service those with drug addition…” he said.

Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bob at 412-765-2312, bbauder@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobbauder.

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