Chanting "Back to the table, while you're able!", protesters took to the streets of Pittsburgh on Wednesday to urge Highmark and West Penn Allegheny Health System to reach an affiliation agreement without going to court.
One day before a court date with Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Christine Ward, the group of about forty hospital employees, community members and politicians brought a "mock negotiating table" to the doorsteps of local juggernaut health insurer Highmark and the financially ailing WPAHS.
Highmark has filed an injunction to continue its $475 million takeover of West Penn Allegheny, hoping to override the hospital system's complaints that Highmark breached the affiliation deal by requiring WPAHS to declare bankruptcy.
"We need both parties that are expressed in this mock conference table to get back to a negotiating session and work out their differences, which are fundamentally the fine print regarding the journal and ledger of finance," said State Senator Jim Ferlo (D-Allegheny/Armstrong/Westmoreland).
Ferlo joined the West Penn Hospital Medical Staff in suggesting that Governor Tom Corbett should get involved as a third-party mediator in the dispute.
Protesters predicted grim consequences should the Highmark-WPAHS affiliation crumble over the bankruptcy spat. Several mentioned the need for a viable competitor to UPMC, a mammoth healthcare nonprofit that also provides insurance. Highmark and UPMC began to cut ties in 2010, at which point the insurer began to take over West Penn Allegheny.
Janet Scullion, President of the Bloomfield Citizens Council, said her neighborhood's livelihood depends on West Penn Hospital. The facility was partially closed in late 2010, only to be revived by an infusion of cash from Highmark. Scullion fears it could "go dark" again without the affiliation.
"If it happens that West Penn goes dark, you can all take it to the bank: Bloomfield will go dark too, and the city of Pittsburgh will lose one of its finest neighborhoods," said Scullion.
Members of WPAHS's nursing unions showed up at the rally as well. Cathy Stoddard, President of Allegheny General Hospital's SEIU nursing union, said the Highmark-WPAHS deal is necessary; however, Stoddard said the new tandem must keep negotiating union contracts with secure pension benefits.
"An affiliation that would do away with these things, or try to put our pension into the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation would eliminate the very thing that makes West Penn a leader," said Stoddard.
According to Senator Ferlo, Highmark's complaints that the WPAHS pension fund isn't financially sound are unfounded, because he said the fund is 80% full. Ferlo noted the original affiliation agreement between Highmark and West Penn Allegheny did not require WPAHS to declare bankruptcy.
Pittsburgh City Council President Darlene Harris and Council Members Patrick Dowd and Bill Peduto attended the march and rally.