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UPMC claims union ties bias Wolf against health giant

| Saturday, April 11, 2015, 10:53 p.m.
Governor of Pennsylvania Tom Wolf arrives at TechShop in East Liberty on Wednesday, April 8, 2015. Gov. Wolf came to visit TechShop on his 'Jobs that Pay' tour, discussing job creation and rebuilding the middle class.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
Governor of Pennsylvania Tom Wolf arrives at TechShop in East Liberty on Wednesday, April 8, 2015. Gov. Wolf came to visit TechShop on his 'Jobs that Pay' tour, discussing job creation and rebuilding the middle class.

UPMC thinks there's an old adversary behind Gov. Tom Wolf's public dressing-down of the health giant last week.

The Service Employees International Union has battled for years to organize thousands of the more than 60,000 workers at UPMC, the biggest nongovernmental employer in Pennsylvania. Now that Wolf has named a former SEIU director as a special assistant and booked thousands of dollars in SEIU campaign donations, UPMC and a Republican state Senate leader argue those union ties slant the administration against the hospital system and toward dominant health insurer Highmark Inc.

Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan called such suggestions false, saying the Democratic governor has been “straight and down the middle” with the Downtown-based corporate rivals. Wolf charged last week that UPMC used senior citizens as leverage in a Medicare feud with Highmark.

Still, state Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati questioned whether the Wolf administration can mediate fairly between UPMC and Highmark.

He believes Wolf's staff is set on unionizing UPMC.

“I don't know what's the disconnect with UPMC and the administration,” said Scarnati, a Jefferson County Republican. “It troubles me that we have such a world-class organization very much getting a raw shake by the administration.”

Sheridan cast Scarnati's view as “delusional” and his criticism as a baseless political attack.

UPMC and Highmark have sparred for several years, including over the end of a longtime commercial contract on Dec. 31. The contract supplied Highmark customers with in-network access to UPMC, the largest health care provider in Western Pennsylvania.

State-brokered consent decrees that executives signed last summer aimed to simplify the transition for patients, but the companies clashed over ongoing care for pregnant women, claims for pediatric care and other issues.

The latest fight broke into view Wednesday, when UPMC confirmed reports that it would not renew for 2016 a long-standing Medicare contract with Highmark. The arrangement gives the insurer's Medicare Advantage customers — about 182,000 seniors in Western Pennsylvania — in-network access to UPMC hospitals and doctors.

UPMC said it had to terminate the contract because Highmark refused to pay about $143 million for customers' cancer care since February 2014. The insurer paid only about 20 percent of its bills for those patients, according to UPMC.

Wolf said ending the contract broke the consent decrees and was “simply unacceptable,” and he vowed to “pursue all options to reverse this decision.”

Rep. Jim Christiana, a Beaver County Republican and Wolf critic, said the governor made the right move.

“I don't even think there should be a question in UPMC's mind that they violated the consent decree,” Christiana said. He cast UPMC's tactics as reckless.

Highmark has accused UPMC of misrepresentations and overbilling but declined to comment Friday on Wolf's approach to the contract conflict.

UPMC spokesman Paul Wood said Medicare Advantage customers with Highmark plans can retain UPMC access by switching to other insurers when an open enrollment period begins Oct. 15. He said Wolf's reaction stemmed from “flawed and factually unsupportable legal analysis.”

“All you have to do is look at the person he has assigned to be his lead staff person on health care issues — and look at his record,” Wood said in reference to Mike Brunelle, a former SEIU director who is on Wolf's staff.

The union gave Wolf $988,000 in campaign money last year, according to an analysis by the Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg. The governor took office in January.

Sheridan said Brunelle's loyalty is to Wolf and that the governor does not “care about the back-and-forth between UPMC and Highmark. He cares about seniors.”

An agreement forged in January at Wolf's request allowed more than 100 Highmark members to retain maternity care coverage this year at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC, Sheridan noted. Highmark had sought to deny them in-network access.

The SEIU would not discuss its relationship with the Wolf administration. In a statement, SEIU Healthcare Executive Board member John Ziegler wrote that Democrats and Republicans “are fed up with UPMC treating patients as pawns.”

“We support the many elected officials, including Gov. Wolf and legislators of both parties, who are calling upon UPMC to change course and refocus on pursuing its charitable mission,” Ziegler wrote.

UPMC could hold up the resolution of conflicts if it doesn't change its approach, said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, a Forest Hills Democrat.

State Sen. Don White, an Indiana Republican, said he has no evidence that Wolf pivots to benefit union supporters, although he questioned whether the governor was fair toward UPMC.

Health care scholar Stephen Foreman said he isn't sure Wolf has to be impartial. The governor appears to be guarding the public interest, he said.

“It's past time for all of us to start working to get this resolved in a way that improves the situation,” said Foreman, an associate professor of health care administration and economics at Robert Morris University. “I would hope the governor would lead those efforts.”

Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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