Opponents of UPMC pack Pittsburgh City Council hearing on health system’s $2B expansion

July 18, 2018

More than 100 union members, community activists and public officials urged Pittsburgh City Council on Tuesday to oppose UPMC’s plans for a vision and rehabilitation hospital at its Mercy complex in Uptown.

UPMC needs council’s approval to build the hospital, part of a $2 billion expansion announced last year.

A public hearing in the City-County Building stretched on for hours after 116 people signed up to speak for and against the proposal. Each had three minutes to speak.

“Today we are not asking for zoning approvals, land acquision, building permits or funding,” said Michael A. Grace, president of UPMC Mercy. “We are simply asking permission to replace one previously planned building -- a power plant -- with another, the UPMC vision rehabilitation hospital.”

Dr. José-Alain Sahel, who heads UPMC’s Department of Ophthalmology, said the hospital would include doctors and researchers capable of delivering cutting edge technologies and care for diagnosing and treating blindness and vision impairment. He said the number of blind people in the world is expected to double and the number of people suffering vision impairments is expected to triple over the next 30 years.

“The goal when we designed this institute is to bring in the same place all the people who can bring new therapies and better access to care for everyone,” he said.

Opponents demanded a community benefits agreement from UPMC that guarantees all Pittsburghers access to health care, the right for UPMC employees to form a union and minimum wages of $15 per hour or higher, among other things.

Speakers described tax exempt UPMC as a for-profit corporation and condemned it for closing its Braddock Hospital in 2009 and thwarting attempts by employees to unionize. UPMC spokeswoman Gloria Kreps, who attended the hearing, declined comment.

“UPMC is proposing a $2 billion investment of our charitable dollars, and the community must have a say in determining how that investment is made,” said Jennifer Kennedy, executive director of the activist group Pittsburgh United.

Kennedy said the community demands access to health care for all Pittsburghers no matter what insurance card they carry, a commitment to combat the city’s “real health needs,” including primary care, addiction, diabetes and mental health care; good jobs and workers rights.

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said studies show that the county is fifth worse among the nation’s largest counties in premature deaths, including fourth worse for black men and second worse for black women.

“How is it that as UPMC has grown and grown, our local population has fallen in measures of public health?” she said.

Grace said the hospital, founded by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy in 1847, would continue providing charity care, which averaged $22 million per year over the last three years. It included $4 million per year in community health programs and $18 million annually in medical research and education.

He said the hospital remains the last Catholic hospital in the city.

Council members will schedule a vote on UPMC’s request in the future.