By Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — Kathleen Kane
It was years ago but Congressman Mike Doyle remembers opening the envelope and seeing the campaign contribution from UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff.
He promptly mailed it back.
“I didn’t want his money. I’ll never take a dollar from that shark.”
The straight-talking Democrat from Forest Hills who grew up in Swissvale, who likes a cold beer, who rubs elbows with the rich and powerful but appears largely unimpressed, has got some fire in his belly. Maybe it’s his Irish-Italian heritage. Maybe it’s the fact that his dad worked the screaming-hot Edgar Thomson steel works. Or maybe it’s all about UPMC.
“UPMC is not behaving like a nonprofit. They’re ruthless bastards and if they were for-profit, maybe that’d be OK. But they’re not … And Romoff? I know this guy. I’ve dealt with him. I know people on his board. And they don’t stand up to him. I don’t know why they even have a board. Jeff Romoff runs the show.”
I’ve been writing about the battle between UPMC and Highmark/Allegheny Health Network and the collateral damage to the people of Western Pennsylvania. I hear daily heartrending stories from people caught in the crossfire.
A five-year consent decree that has been unraveling the longtime business arrangement between these health care behemoths is ending. As of now, the medically vulnerable and senior citizens with Highmark insurance can access UPMC facilities and doctors until June 30. Other agreements allow Highmark customers to do business with a handful of specialized UPMC facilities (such as Western Psych and Children’s Hospital) for a while longer.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has taken on UPMC — a $19 billion “nonprofit” business, the largest employer in Pennsylvania, the biggest landowner in Western Pennsylvania, a colossus led by some of the wealthiest people in Pittsburgh (chief among them Mr. Romoff, a multimillionaire said to have access to a private jet, a personal chef and whose windows on the 64th floor of the U.S. Steel Tower are fabled to be bulletproof.)
What Mr. Shapiro seeks is what most of us want: full cross-network access between these titans of industry. For now, he’ll settle for an extension of the consent decree. Highmark is willing. UPMC is not. So Mr. Shapiro is fighting UPMC in multiple judicial jurisdictions.
Will David vanquish Goliath? Time will tell.
Meantime, seeking input from other political power-brokers, I’ve gotten responses that range from silence (Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto) to hand-wringing (U.S. Sen. Bob Casey).
But when I talked with Mr. Doyle, I got an earful: an hour-plus condemnation, not of UPMC per se, but of Jeffrey Romoff, the man behind the curtain.
Mr. Doyle knows what it’s like to go toe-to-toe with Mr. Romoff — to plead, to argue, to persuade with passion and reason.
And to get nowhere.
It was 2009 and UPMC had announced the closing of its hospital in Braddock. Mr. Doyle, already a veteran congressman, joined the battle to stop the shutdown.
“We stormed the gates. We rallied. We got with the powers-that-be. I sat in Jeff Romoff’s marble palace and did everything but threaten to throw him out the window and he never budged. He never blinked. Jeff Romoff wasn’t fazed. Not a bit.”
Since then: “Well, I’d guess you’d say we haven’t had much of a speaking relationship.”
In fact, when Mr. Romoff sent Mr. Doyle a campaign contribution (Mr. Doyle thinks the amount was $1,000), he returned the check.
They haven’t spoken since.
Before that, the congressman, who took his seat in 1995, would see Mr. Romoff occasionally and their relationship was cordial. UPMC was good for the region: Great doctors. State of the art facilities. Lots of employment opportunities — although Mr. Doyle said he’s always “had a problem” with the low wages UPMC pays its workaday employees.
Even as the health care landscape began to change with UPMC buying an insurance company and Highmark buying a health care system, the congressman still was upbeat: “At the time, we had an 800-pound gorilla insurance company and an 800-pound gorilla hospital system. Maybe the competition would be good.”
But when trouble started brewing between UPMC and Highmark, Mr. Doyle became wary. Then it all went to hell, leading to a court-sanctioned-and-supervised consent decree. The one that’s now ending.
“I was one of many that went through channels, some public and some not so public. I talked to attorneys dozens of time. We asked them, ‘Put the patients first. Please.’ Nothing.”
Mr. Doyle wonders whether the region can support two separate health systems/insurance providers over the long term. “I’ve heard it many times, Jeff Romoff wants to destroy (the competition),” he said.
If that happens, that leaves lots of people unemployed and a bunch of buildings sitting on tracts of land that are exempt from property taxes.
Those worries are for tomorrow. There are enough troubles for today.
The congressman echoes remarks from Mr. Casey and the staff of Sen. Pat Toomey who have said there’s little they can do about this situation. Mr. Doyle said the Western Pennsylvania delegation (the senators, himself and Reps. Connor Lamb and Mike Kelly) have asked relevant federal agencies to prevent UPMC from implementing an onerous plan to require upfront payment for medical services from subscribers to Highmark Medicare Advantage plans. “I think the entire delegation is on the same page with this. We don’t like this. But whether anyone wants to hear it or not, it’s primarily a state issue,” he said.
Unconvinced that his voice will matter, Mr. Doyle continued: “I’m damn mad at Jeff Romoff, the way he operates. It’s disgraceful. Some people look at him and say ‘He’s brilliant and a bulldog.’ Some people appreciate that he’s a shark. The only thing that kicks it all in the ass is that he’s a nonprofit. He’s forgotten the mission. That’s where the shine comes off his star.”
Karen Kane is a Post-Gazette editorial board member (firstname.lastname@example.org, 724 772-9180, Twitter: @KarenKanePG).