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Medical group threatens legal action

| Friday, Jan. 2, 2004

The doctors at Valley Family Medicine, which has offices in Tarentum and Lower Burrell, said they might take legal action against a recent advertising campaign launched by Alle-Kiski Medical Center.

Alle-Kiski Medical Center is trying to keep patients local after Valley Family Medicine announced that as of Thursday it would be sending patients to UPMC-St. Margaret Hospital for admittance.

UPMC purchased Valley Family Medicine when the Pittsburgh region's largest health care magnate bought out St. Francis Health System. As of the first of the year, Valley Family Medicine will be under contract to send its patients to St. Margaret's as a result of the buy-out.

However, Valley Family Medicine will continue to send patients to the local hospital for lab work and x-rays.

Allegheny Valley Hospital in Harrison and Citizens Ambulatory Care Center in New Kensington are the two local arms of Alle-Kiski Medical Center.

In addition to print ads encouraging area residents to find a primary care physician associated with the local hospital, Alle-Kiski Medical Center has sent letters to its patients informing them that Valley Family Medicine no longer will admit locally.

The letters were sent in response to a mailing done by Valley Family Medicine that informed its patients it would be admitting to St. Margaret's as of Jan. 1.

A portion of Alle-Kiski Medical Center's response letter reads:

"That letter was designed to make you believe that these doctors will be seeing patients only at UPMC St. Margaret Hospital due to a desire to provide quality care that you can't receive locally. The truth is, these physicians have sold their practices to UPMC and are now employees of that organization, clearly needing to refer patients to a UPMC facility out of the local community."

The physicians referred to in the letter are Paul Brayer, Mark Morrissey, David Tomaselli and Lori Wittig.

Morrissey said last week that although Valley Family Medicine respects the work done at the local hospital, the letter is not that far from the point. Although the decision to admit out of the area was beyond their control, Morrissey said the doctors at Valley Family Medicine might prefer it that way.

Morrissey said he was concerned about the way in which the local hospital was being managed.

"The group that owns (Allegheny Valley Hospital) doesn't support the hospital," he said. "That's why we've primarily made our move. We don't feel there's support downtown for the hospital."

"We're afraid that Allegheny Valley Hospital could go bankrupt again," Morrissey added. "That's why we've embraced their competitor."

But, Morrissey said Valley Family Medicine does not want to engage in an attack/counter-attack campaign with Alle-Kiski Medical Center.

"Our tactic has been to lay low and not say anything," Morrissey said. "But it's gotten so ugly that we're being set as an example by Allegheny Valley Hospital, and we feel illegally."

Morrissey said that Valley Family Medicine is considering legal action against Alle-Kiski Medical Center.

"We're in the process right now of putting some of that stuff together," he said.

One of the core issues in the fight, Morrissey said, is what Valley Family Medicine feels is a violation of the federal Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Morrissey said that the decision by Alle-Kiski Medical Center to mail Valley Family Medicine's patients violates HIPAA. However, Shirley Freyer, who is the spokeswoman for the local hospital, said that Valley Family Medicine's patients also are the hospital's patients, and therefore there is no violation.

"Any ads that we do are reviewed by legal counsel," Freyer said. "They are fully compliant."

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency which oversees HIPAA, could not be reached for comment.

Morrissey said that because of Alle-Kiski Medical Center's campaign, which he said is an unfair attack, Valley Family Medicine is losing patients.

"We just feel like maybe they've gone over the line a little," Morrissey said. "Our end of it would not be to recover money, but to have Allegheny Valley Hospital cease and desist with its negative ad campaign."

Freyer said the hospital's stance is that "an informed public is a wiser public." She denied that the ads were negative.

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