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Editorial: UPMC, Highmark show charities are big business

| Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, 3:33 p.m.
The UPMC and Highmark buildings in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
The UPMC and Highmark buildings in Downtown Pittsburgh.

When Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced Thursday that he was going to court to break up the UPMC-Highmark catfight, it put a spotlight on something that frequently gets forgotten when dealing with the big business of health.

They are both nonprofit organizations.

Neither of them hide that. In fact, it is the most common hospital ownership form. According to Forbes, 59 percent of hospitals are nonprofit. It’s something that sounds good — comforting, even — when you’re talking about being sick or hurt or scared. You want someone who is there to help, not someone there to take your wallet before your pulse.

But hospitals and health insurance are still big business, and UPMC and Highmark represent both. UPMC has its initials stamped on 35 hospitals, 23 outpatient or community health centers, 12 urgent care facilities and more, while Highmark’s provider side is the Allegheny Health Network with its own seven hospitals plus additional surgery centers, urgent cares and “Health + Wellness Pavilions.”

Between the two of them, they have more medical facilities than some states and revenues higher than the budgets of small countries.

None of that is bad. But it does more than blur the line between business and charity. It buries it.

There is nothing wrong with being a business. There is nothing wrong with being a nonprofit. Both have a place in the landscape of Southwestern Pennsylvania and the health care industry.

But you can’t be one when it’s convenient and the other when it’s not. You can’t be one when applying for grants and tax breaks and the other when sending out bills and changing how people can access doctors and hospitals.

Charity isn’t — or shouldn’t be — a costume.

Charity is a calling, like the one we assume most medical providers feel. Caring for the human body at some of its lowest points can be exhausting, emotional and painful, and not everyone providing that care is well-paid. Many do the work because they believe someone has to be there to give comfort or strength or hope when needed.

Hospitals and insurance companies need to be paid so they can continue to provide that care, whether they are nonprofit or not. But they don’t need gamesmanship and strategic moves against one another like Silicon Valley tech companies engaged in corporate espionage.

A charity is there to help people, not hurt them, especially not hurt them carelessly as part of a business strategy.

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