Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Pittsburgh Experiment - I - Caught in the Crossfire

In our increasingly dysfunctional health care system, patients, health care professionals and the public are often caught in the crossfire between big health care organizations.  Such organizations are often led by people who do not seem to put the interests of patients and the public, and the values of professionals first.  (Note that we have been writing about this since at least 2003, when the concept appeared in my article: Poses RM. A cautionary tale: the dysfunction of the American health care system. Eur J Int Med 2003; 14: 123-130. Link here.)

Last week, Anna Wilde Matthews and John W Miller wrote in the Wall Street Journal about an amazing example of such a crossfire that pitted the two dominant health care organizations in Western Pennsylvania against each other.  The case turns out to touch on many of the most dysfunctional aspects of US health care.  So rather than try to cram it into an overly long blog post, I plan to periodically discuss it over the next few weeks, starting now with an overview of the grappling titans.

The Basic Conflict

Per the Wall Street Journal article,
In Pittsburgh, the acrimonious battle between Highmark, the region's most powerful health insurer, and UPMC, the dominant health-care provider, is drawing national attention as a test case on the impact of consolidation in the health-care industry.

At the heart of the dispute is Highmark's effort to acquire a financially troubled local hospital group, West Penn Allegheny Health System, as the centerpiece of what it says will be a lower-cost and more efficient health-care operation. UPMC, which has its own insurance arm as well as 19 area hospitals and 3,240 doctors, says it doesn't want to bolster a company it now considers a direct rival. It has vowed not to sign a new contract to treat patients covered by Highmark, which would mean those patients generally would pay high out-of-network rates to use UPMC hospitals and doctors.

As we will see, the dispute is between a dominant hospital system that is trying to muscle into the insurance business, and a dominant insurer that is trying to muscle into the hospital business. If either were to succeed, it would become the dominant health care organization in the Pittsburgh area.

A Personal Fight Amongst Two CEOs

However, the fight soon seemed to be more among the CEOs of the two organizations. Per the WSJ,
In Pittsburgh, the battle has become unusually bitter, spearheaded by the two companies' chief executives, UPMC's Jeffrey A. Romoff, 66, and Highmark's Kenneth Melani, 58. Mr. Romoff, who has built UPMC into a $9 billion juggernaut and put its initials on the tallest skyscraper in the city, calls Highmark a 'monopoly.' Dr. Melani uses the same term in warnings about UPMC's power and referred to Mr. Romoff in a local newspaper as 'trying to rape the commercial marketplace to build his empire.'  (A spokesman for Mr. Romoff said the comment 'lacked both substance and dignity.')

An article from December, 2011 in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review had illustrated other aspects of the bitterness about and between the CEOs.
UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff's satiric, fake Twitter profile lists his favorite games as Monopoly and Risk.

In recent tweets, the anonymous author wrote under his name, 'New York State, here we come!' and said he wants to take Highmark CEO Dr. Kenneth Melani 'outside to settle things -- but it would be unfair competition if (we) could BOTH use our fists.'

The month-old Fake Jeffrey Romoff persona, whose author declined to be interviewed but said it's 'no laughing matter,' depicts the head of Western Pennsylvania's dominant health care system as a greedy tyrant with an angry avatar. It counts fewer than 40 followers, but its existence points to a public relations failure for UPMC in its fight with Highmark Inc., media experts say.

'Nobody feels sorry for Romoff,' said Andrea Fitting, president of Downtown marketing firm Fitting Group. 'If you ask anyone on the street, they'll say Romoff is a monster. There's no person who's trustworthy and sympathetic who they've enlisted as a spokesman.'

Romoff could not be reached for comment.

UPMC spokesman Paul Wood said he is not concerned about the profile's effect on the hospital network's image.

'Not something that has virtually no followers,' he said.

There's no fake Twitter handle lampooning Melani, but experts say the state's largest insurer is not doing a great job of managing its public image either.

As found in the WSJ article,
'There's no white hat here,' says Don White, a Republican who chairs the state Senate committee overseeing insurance. 'They're both concerned about their self-preservation and domination.'

Neither CEO seems satisfied that his organization has become dominant in its field, and both seem to resent the success of the other organization in another field. Let us briefly review the backgrounds of both systems.

UPMC as Dominant Hospital System

The WSJ article started to probe the complexity of the situation:
The struggle in Pittsburgh has roots that go back decades. UPMC, led since 1992 by Bronx native Mr. Romoff, has grown on his watch to $9 billion in annual revenue from $797 million when he took over. Today, UPMC has around 58% inpatient market share in Allegheny County and a brand buoyed by its identification with nationally known research and treatment centers like Hillman Cancer Center, where Ms. Wyckoff is being treated. The nonprofit system, with around $406 million in operating income in its most recent fiscal year ended June 30, is also Pennsylvania's biggest private employer.

UPMC's initials dominate the Pittsburgh skyline from the top of the U.S. Steel Tower, the city's tallest building. The nonprofit leases a private jet that is used to fly executives and doctors to its facilities in Ireland and Italy. Mr. Romoff has become one of the city's most prominent business leaders. Poking fun at a local nickname for his boss, a staffer once presented Mr. Romoff with a Darth Vader action figure. In 2009, UPMC published a glossy history of its own expansion titled 'Beyond the Bounds.'

Highmark as Dominant Insurer

On the other hand,
As UPMC grew, its main hospital rival, West Penn Allegheny, withered. The five-hospital group emerged from the ashes of a Pennsylvania hospital system that filed for bankruptcy in 1998 after piling on too much debt and acquiring money-losing assets. It struggled for years.

By 2011, West Penn Allegheny was in the red, with heavy debt and pension obligations. To cut costs, it shut down much of its Western Pennsylvania Hospital. At one point, filmmakers took over its empty intensive-care unit to film a scene for a coming Tom Cruise movie.

In June, Highmark's Dr. Melani unveiled his plan to acquire West Penn Allegheny for a combination of loans and grants valued at as much as $475 million. Like UPMC, nonprofit Highmark was a dominant presence in its market, formed from the merger of a Blue Cross and a Blue Shield plan in 1996. By 2011, it had market share of around 60% in Allegheny County, with annual revenue of $14.8 billion, and it was sitting on reserves of about $4.1 billion.

Still, it was a bold and risky stroke for Dr. Melani, a blunt-spoken internal-medicine physician who himself trained at West Penn.

Marketing Rather than Substance

The two sides launched a marketing and public relations battle which did not seem to have much to do with quality of, access to, and cost of health care. As the WSJ article noted,
The spat quickly got nasty. Highmark highlighted UPMC's rate request in ads, and hired a Washington lobbying firm to pull together a coalition of churches, patient groups and others that would press for a deal. UPMC's own ad campaign urged patients to 'Keep your doctor. Check your plan.' Highmark sued, arguing the ads were misleading. UPMC bought Google ads that called up its site when a user searched for 'Highmark.'

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article included,
Public relations experts agree that Highmark faces a daunting challenge: People might see UPMC -- and by extension, Romoff -- as a bully, but they don't want to lose access to the system's 19 hospitals and 3,000 doctors in Western Pennsylvania.

UPMC's 'Keep Your Doc' ad campaign, produced by South Side agency GatesmanMarmion+Dave, is successful because it furthers the organization's business objectives, said Dale Leibach, an associate with Prism Public Affairs in Washington. This year, for the first time, UPMC gave four national insurers full access to its facilities and doctors, an arrangement previously granted only to Highmark.

'I would give points to UPMC for consistency and transparency, in promising more competition and then delivering on that promise by giving people in Pittsburgh and in the region many more options in terms of insurance providers,' said Leibach, who reviewed news accounts about the dispute.

David Kosick Sr., senior associate at KMA Public Relations in Canonsburg, takes the opposite stance, saying Highmark receives greater sympathy from a public that views UPMC as an insensitive corporate titan. Mullen Advertising in the Strip District produces Highmark's 'Accepted. Everywhere' ad campaign for TV, radio, publications, billboards and the Internet.

'Highmark's winning the PR battle,' Kosick said, citing threats by state lawmakers to intervene and public criticism directed at UPMC, including Allegheny County Council's refusal last month to issue $335 million in bonds for UPMC because of public opposition.

Wood said the health system recognizes its reputation 'may have taken a bit of a short-term hit locally,' but 'UPMC is focused on the longer term.'

'We've used our PR and marketing to fundamentally change the health care market in Western Pennsylvania,' Wood said.

Gene Grabowski, senior vice president of Washington-based public relations firm Levick Strategic Communications, said that strategy could backfire.

In addition to online social media, the public relations campaigns have ramped up on television and in other advertising.

UPMC placed its TV ads on major networks and cable and estimates they will reach the average Pittsburgh viewer four times a week, Wood said. He declined to say how much UPMC is spending on the ad campaign or what it budgets for advertising, but he said the budget has not changed since last year.

The ads, Fitting said, target 'what people are really worried about.'

Highmark stepped up its campaign in response to UPMC's, Weinstein said. He would not say how much Highmark pays Mullen Advertising or what it budgets for advertising.

'UPMC launched an aggressive, multifaceted misinformation campaign targeted at employers and consumers who subscribe to Highmark's health plans,' Weinstein said.

Caught in the Crossfire

Meanwhile, of course, patients and doctors are trying to avoid being stomped by the wrestling titans. The Wall Street Journal article opened with this theme,
Trish Wyckoff is struggling with stage-four breast cancer, but now the 53-year-old Pittsburgh resident has another worry: a possible divorce between the hospital system that is treating her, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and Highmark Inc., the health insurer that pays for her care. If the two companies can't agree, she fears she won't be able to keep seeing the doctors who she believes are keeping her alive.

'We are absolutely stuck in the middle,' she says. This is a really scary time.'

Here is another anecdote,
With local newspapers chronicling each tit-for-tat, Pittsburgh residents like Dan Glasser say they have been acutely aware of the battle. Mr. Glasser, a 46-year-old lawyer, says he is alarmed and annoyed at the potential split between his insurer and UPMC. If forced to choose a side, he says, he would switch health plans to ensure access to UPMC. He has been seeing the same doctor there since he graduated from law school. 'That's almost my whole adult life,' he says.

Doctors are equally unhappy.
For his part, Kenneth Gold, Mr. Glasser's primary care physician, says he has been telling worried patients that 'all of us are pawns in this fight,' which he hopes gets resolved. If Highmark and UPMC do break up, 'it is going to be mass chaos,' he says.

Even employers are unhappy,
Employers, for their part, say they feel trapped in the middle, worried about health-care costs and also under pressure from employees to lock in access to UPMC. Cheryl Melinchak, director of benefits at Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse Electric Co., says the firm is likely to offer a new health plan this fall, in addition to Highmark and a high-deductible Aetna version, to ensure workers can use UPMC.

The standoff is 'frustrating,' she says. 'We need competition on both sides,' insurers and health providers.


So here we have the brave new world of the US health care system, a system that some people in other countries seem to think is worthy of emulation. Increasing concentration of power has lead to health care dominated by ever larger organizations lead by ever more egocentric executives. Organizations that are dominant in one area seek to dominate other areas. Caught in the crossfire are patients, doctors, employers, and the public. While more money goes to advertising, public relations, and lawyers, nothing about the fight seems to be about improving care or making it more accessible.

Further considering how this particular fight came to be will reveal various interlocking facets of health care dysfunction. If we can start to address them, we may be able to accomplish real health care reform.  Clearly we need health care organizations to concentrate on health care, not on increasing their power and domination.  We need them using most of their resources for health care, not on marketing, public relations, legal services, administrative support, and executive compensation. 

Stay tuned to Health Care Renewal as we continue this series.


Deborah Maliver M.D., J.D. said...

I live in Pittsburgh. This is awful for all of us. As a plaintiffs' medical malpractice litigator I can attest to the fact that there are actual human victims of this mess. People cannot pay enough attention.

Gary Smith SCS Agency said...

why people can not pay attention???

We have to do something for people to pay attention.

Afraid said...

I'm too afraid to comment.