Protecting Jobs and Preserving Local Health Care Access: A Public Hearing on the Proposed WHS-UPMC Affiliation

By: Lisa Lombardo, UPMC

The purpose: To openly voice and listen to public opinion about the proposed affiliation between Washington Health System and UPMC.

The vibe: A standing-room-only sea of maroon-clad T-shirts, donned in solidarity by Washington Health System employees in support of affiliating with UPMC.

The common goal: To protect local jobs and preserve local health care access for Washington and Greene counties and surrounding communities.

‘Increasing Access to World-Class Care’

In the months leading up to the Office of the Attorney General Public Hearing, held on Thursday, Jan. 18, at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., Brook Ward, president and CEO of Washington Health System, has been listening to feedback from the community.

Ward explained the critical situation WHS is in during an interview with Marty Griffin on his KDKA morning program and a special Get Marty episode. And he penned a powerful opinion letter published in the Washington Observer-Reporter.

Alongside WHS employees and medical staff members, local elected officials and union leaders, Ward and many community stakeholders firmly believe the viability of Washington Health System is dependent on an affiliation with UPMC.

At the hearing, Ward discussed the thorough decision making of the WHS board of directors in choosing UPMC and shed light on the vital need for the affiliation to happen very soon.

“Of the three finalists, UPMC was the only one that guaranteed to maintain the hospital and its core services including maternity, cardiac surgery and behavioral health for a minimum of ten years and make a $300 million dollar capital commitment.”

Ward continued, “This affiliation, which is supported by the hospital board of directors, medical staff, residents and our employees, not only preserves and expands jobs — it increases access to world-class care and promises locally available health care for future generations.”

‘Delivering an Entirely New Level of Health Care’

Beth Piccione, M.D., president, UPMC Jameson and UPMC Horizon, gave testimony on how she witnessed UPMC save jobs and improve health care for New Castle and its surrounding communities.

In 2014, Jameson Health System’s community board of directors determined it was no longer able to sustain mounting financial pressures. The board chose UPMC as the clear partner that could provide high-quality health care for years to come. But regulators questioned the board’s decision and required a lengthy “do-over” process that delayed Jameson’s affiliation with UPMC by 14 months.

Months went by with Jameson’s financial situation and ability to retain physicians rapidly diminishing. It was left with no choice but to reduce services. Jameson’s maternity unit closed and staffed inpatient beds were reduced. After substantial effort, lost opportunity, services reductions and expensive legal fees, Jameson finally became UPMC Jameson in May 2016.

Dr. Piccione reflected on her position, at the time, as a practicing cardiologist with a voice that was heard to shape the community’s health care.

“I witnessed how UPMC’s promised investments in patient care were immediately prioritized and put into action. I watched our employees and medical staff members sigh a breath of relief, reassured about their own careers and the continuation of needed services to support our patients,” Dr. Piccione continued. “I experienced how our community became the beneficiary of a continuous elevation of exceptional health care with access close to home.”

Per the terms of the definitive agreement, UPMC committed to invest $85 million in Jameson over 10 years. After only five years, UPMC invested more than $100 million in Jameson — and an additional $50 million to elevate services at neighboring UPMC Horizon in Mercer County.

“UPMC Jameson has become a destination for advanced health care delivery. We are delivering an entirely new level of health care from within New Castle,” Dr. Piccione continued.

“Backed by the resources of UPMC and the innovations that are part of our DNA, it’s our smart, caring leaders, our brilliant medical experts and our dedicated care teams who make our organization best in class. They are the people, they are the village, who created the success story for the patients, employees and community of Lawrence County.”

Elevating Care and Careers

Washington Hospital is one of the first places he cared for patients after becoming an emergency medicine physician. Throughout his career, he worked closely and built friendships with physicians across Greene and Washington counties. Rick Wadas, M.D., vice president, UPMC Community and Ambulatory Services Division, and professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, has personal connection with WHS and personal experience with the benefits that come from a community hospital affiliation with UPMC.

At the hearing, Dr. Wadas shared examples of UPMC’s track record embedding its signature specialty services inside communities to bring close-to-home access to the nationally ranked care of UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, UPMC Western Behavioral Health, UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute and UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.

“We will invest in retaining and recruiting the most talented physicians, nurses and clinical experts to provide you and your loved ones the very best in primary and specialty care,” said Dr. Wadas. “And the ability for patients to access low-cost, high-quality care will not change. All UPMC hospitals, physician practices and outpatient locations accept national and local insurance plans.”

Describing the ways UPMC elevates quality and experiences, Dr. Wadas cited six UPMC hospitals previously earning a “C” Leapfrog Hospital Safety Grade at the time of affiliation that are now consistent A-grade hospitals. A Leapfrog “A” represents the nation’s top distinction for patient safety.

Dr. Wadas echoed sentiments shared by Ward and Dr. Piccione that UPMC intends to keep all WHS employees following the affiliation — pay will be protected, paid time off earned will be preserved and access to enriched, industry-leading benefits will be gained.

His overview of UPMC’s employee benefits was of particular interest to the public hearing crowd, comprised largely of WHS staff.

“The UPMC Total Rewards package is designed to support every aspect of our employees’ lives and career journey,” said Dr. Wadas. “We were the first health system in Pennsylvania to offer our employees who are new moms and dads paid parental leave, we offer assistance for child and senior care services and paid life insurance and paid disability benefits complement our affordable medical coverage.”

He described UPMC’s robust, flexible paid time off program with buy and sell options and how WHS employees would gain a tuition assistance program with $6,000 per year available for full-time students, including employees and their dependent children and domestic partners.

“We know our employees are the heart of what makes our organization successful, and we look forward to welcoming WHS teams to UPMC,” Dr. Wadas said.

Speaking in Support — Employees, Elected Officials and Union Leaders

Emotion permeated the room as Washington Health System employees united to represent their 2,700 co-workers and to voice support for the thousands of patients they passionately care for.

Brittany Laird, a WHS nurse, presented a petition signed by more than 400 of her WHS colleagues in support of the UPMC affiliation. She devoted her three minutes at the podium to share a video featuring WHS staff conveying their passion to join UPMC.

Donna Wiles, a nurse serving WHS for over 45 years, shared her views on the profound benefits of integrating with UPMC. “It will ensure we can keep providing care but will also open doors for both health care professionals and patients. With this merger, we will gain access to advanced medical technologies and a larger range of specialized services.”

Wiles continued, “I believe this will result in a stronger foundation, better staffing and improved training opportunities … it will elevate the overall health care experience of our community. The merger will secure our future and help us flourish to support generations to come.”

Andy Rush, president, UPMC Somerset, and Mark Yaros, M.D., family medicine physician and vice president of Medical Affairs, UPMC Somerset, traveled to Washington to show their support.

Rush described that when the Somerset Hospital board made the decision to affiliate with UPMC, its objectives were to bring additional medical services into the community so people did not have to travel for care, to address significant financial pressures and to enhance the quality of health and life in the community. “UPMC has made significant progress in meeting every objective and continues to invest in our community,” Rush said.

Dr. Yaros added, “Our employees are all still working, our employees are better off. What matters the most to all of us here is patients and patient care. This is the plan that is going to get you through to the next 125 years.”

Numerous union organization leaders spoke in support of a WHS affiliation with UPMC. Steve Mazza of the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters represents 800 local members in Washington and Greene counties.

Mazza shared, “WHS not only provides our members’ health care, it serves as the provider of thousands of hours of good-paying construction jobs. Allowing this merger between WHS and UPMC will help raise up underserved communities, not only by continuing to deliver excellent health care but also providing jobs that pay area-standard wages and benefits.”

Union leaders were joined by elected officials in support of the affiliation, including Rep. Tim O’Neal, Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, Rep. Josh Kail and Washington County Commissioner Nick Sherman.

“The fact of the matter is if we want the health system to persist into the future, something needs to be done. We need to ensure this health system remains an asset to our community,” said Rep. O’Neal.” “And I believe, based on the knowledge that I have, the only option to do that at this point is the acquisition with UPMC.”

Following the hearing, Rep. Reschenthaler caught up with Marty Griffin on KDKA-AM to talk more about the importance of a WHS-UPMC affiliation to preserve the future of Washington Health System.

It takes a village to provide great health care. The caring people of WHS and the dedicated teams of UPMC are that village. Together, they will protect the vitality of a community asset and ensure a healthy future for Washington and Greene counties for years to come.

Learn more about sentiments shared at the hearing from the Washington Observer-Reporter, and watch a recording of the full public hearing.