Slag Heap | Pittsburgh City Paper

Friday, September 30, 2011

Toomey "appears" in Onion hostage-taking story

Posted By on Fri, Sep 30, 2011 at 12:16 PM

Senator Pat Toomey's Station Square office will be the site of a demonstration at noon today.The folks at One Pittsburgh intend to tell Toomey "There's work that needs to be done and we're ready to work." According to a release, the group intendes to present "photographs of places in Pittsburgh where there's work to be done -- and to remind Toomey that he was elected to create jobs, not create more giveaways for the super rich."

Whatever the ensuing events, it probably won't be as amusing as the footage found at this article at The Onion.

Under the headline "Congress Takes Group of Schoolchildren Hostage," the satirical site plays up "hostage taking" efforts perpetrated by Toomey and his GOP colleagues:

Brandishing shotguns and semiautomatic pistols, members of the 112th U.S. Congress took a class of visiting schoolchildren hostage today, barricading themselves inside the Capitol rotunda and demanding $12 trillion dollars in cash.

The targets of the satire are bipartisan -- Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is depicted wearing "a pair of black pantyhose over his head and ... firing a Beretta 9 mm handgun into the air, shouting,'Everybody down! Everybody get the fuck down!"

But it's Republican Toomey, a member of the bipartisan "supercongress" charged with deficit reduction, who appears in trumped-up footage of the standoff.

"Footage" from the hostage situation
  • "Footage" from the hostage situation

"Nobody move or you're all gonna die!" a voice -- jestingly ascribed to Toomey -- tells a huddled group of children. 

"I want my mommy!" one distraught child says. 

It's all in good fun ... or is it? Capitol Police have publically denied "false information" about goings-on at the Capitol, but claim to be "investigating" reports. And House leader Eric Cantor's PR flack has taken umbrage with the article on Twitter.

No word from Toomey's twitter feed thus far.  

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Breaking: Prison guard ID'ed in lawsuits arrested

Posted By on Tue, Sep 27, 2011 at 2:17 PM

This morning, SCI-Pittsburgh prison guard Harry F. Nicoletti was arrested on dozens of charges of sexual and physical assault involving prison inmates. Nicoletti was named in a lawsuit first reported by City Paper last week, and was the target of graphic abuse allegations in a separate legal action filed the day after our story came out. 

Today's criminal charges include numerous counts of indecent and simple assault, official oppression, terroristic threats, and criminal solicitation. They are detailed in a 34-page affidavit, which echoes many of the allegations our Matt Stroud reported last week. 

The affidavit was compiled by Gary Hiller, an investigator in the state Department of Corrections Office of Special Intelligence and Investigations. It is largely based on testimony made before a grand jury over a four-month period this year.

According to the affidavit, Nicoletti frequently -- though not always -- singled out prisoners convicted of sexually abusing children, abusing them in turn. Sometimes,  the abuse was psychological: One inmate, for example, claims Nicoletti forced him to suck his own thumb; others say Nicoletti had cell-block workers urinate on child-abusers' bed sheets. The complaint asserts that Nicoletti repeatedly referred to convicted pedophiles as "pee-pee touchers" and other slurs.

But allegedly, the abuse could also be physical -- with Nicoletti allegedly striking the convicts or shoving their heads inside toilets -- or sexual.

There are multiple allegations that Nicoletti exposed himself to inmates, and that he forced prisoners to masturbate him to climax. Nicoletti also allegedly threatened inmates with rape. In one case, Nicoletti is accused of bending an inmate over and "pok[ing] him in the rectum area with a broomhandle." Another inmate accuses Nicoletti of raping him. The alleged victim is not identified, but the circumstances of the incident are similar to those alleged in the lawsuit City Paper reported on last week, which was filed by former SCI-Pittsburgh inmate Rodger Williams

The allegations in the affidavit appear to be based entirely on eyewitness testimony from inmates. In a brief statement announcing the arrest, the District Attorney's office says that the charges are based on "the testimony of victims and [Department of Corrections] staff who appeared earlier this year" before a grand jury. Their perspectives on Nicoletti are not always easy to reconcile: While some accounts accuse Nicoletti of using racial epithets, for example, one inmate claims that Nicoletti demanded he apologize to black prisoners for using such language himself. 

Nicoletti has previously denied similar allegations made in the civil suits.

Nicoletti's arrest is only the beginning. Nicoletti was one of 8 guards purportedly on unpaid leave as part of the investigation. And at various points, the affidavit claims that other prison guards were on hand to see his actions, though there is little testimony that they were active participants. Inmates also claim that Nicoletti recruited prisoners to carry out their own reprisals; one inmate claims to have assaulted 15 convicted pedophiles at Nicoletti's direction. Another claims Nicoletti urged him to abuse his cellmate, a convicted sex offender; the prisoner claimed that Nicoletti promised to cover up the assualt, and to reward it with cigarettes. Nicoletti threatened to file false disciplinary charges against -- or even kill -- inmates who complained of his behavior.  

"The arrest of Nicoletti does not indicate the end of this investigation and more arrests will be forthcoming," the DA's statement asserts.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A conversation with Steve Perry

Posted By on Fri, Sep 23, 2011 at 2:48 PM

Steve Perry is the founder and principal of the nationally recognized Capital Preparatory Magnet School, in Hartford, Conn. He is also a CNN education correspondent and the author of Push Has Come to Shove: Getting Our Kids the Education They Deserve (Even if it Means Picking a Fight).


Perry, an advocate of school choice and a vocal opponent of teachers unions, will join Pittsburgh Superintendent Linda Lane during a town hall discussion tomorrow at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, where they will discuss the racial achievement gap . He spoke with City Paper this morning via telephone from his Hartford school.

Why are America's schools failing our children?
They're failing because they focus on adults. The intent is not to make a school that works for children.

Teachers unions don't like you very much.
They should love me. And if for one second they wanted to convince people that they love kids, then they should find a way to love me. Two years ago, I got on television and I started telling everybody that the biggest issue in public education is teachers unions. And even at CNN, they told me, "Steve, you've gotta pump your brakes a little bit, partner. You've gotta stop talking about this union stuff, because it's really not that big of an issue."

Look around [now]. What's the biggest issue? Governors, superintendents, everybody is doing what they have to do to dampen the impact that teachers unions have had on our children. They created this environment that focuses on adults. It's all about them. They, in my opinion, can go to hell.

Why has Capital Prep been successful where other schools have failed?
We've designed a school that prepares children for college. We don't have courses in our course offering that are developmental courses. There are no remedial courses. Every single course that is offered is a course that is capable of sending a child to college.

So if that approach has proven successful, why aren't more schools following your lead?
I had a conversation with a principal this morning ... and she said to me, "We need to have more teachers who believe that every kid can learn." I said, "I believe there are a lot of teachers who believe kids can learn, but the issue is how much they believe they can learn."

Many teachers believe kids can learn two [on a scale of 10]. And then they'll offset the rest that they didn't learn by the excuses of race, poverty and the parents' education, or lack-thereof. They have this thing down to a science. They can tell you exactly why the kids can't learn. You're telling an entire group of people in towns like Pittsburgh that their kids can't learn. It's disgusting. They're telling the parents, 'Look, I'd educate your kid if you weren't so damn dumb!"

And the teachers unions fight to make sure that we can't hold teachers accountable for their failings. That is the foundation of their organization. Their organization promises that, if you challenge their members based upon their performance, you're going against their contract. Think about that for a second. What's being said is, "I can't evaluate a teacher's effectiveness based upon how well she did at teaching kids." That's their only job.

Here in Pittsburgh, the city school district reached an agreement last year with the teachers union that includes pay-for-performance. Is that a step in the right direction?
I don't think that paying for performance is the answer. What I know doesn't work is just paying everybody the same just because they showed up and didn't die. And what we have right now is, as long as you don't die, I'm going to pay you.

School choice is being seriously debated here in Pennsylvania as voucher and charter bills circulate through the state legislature. Is that a good thing?
It must be done. The only way we'll get good schools in our lifetime is to free the children of the failed schools they're in now.

What do you say to critics who argue that vouchers and charters would effectively dismantle public school districts?
They are right: It will absolutely cripple failed schools. They will shut down. No doubt. And thank God for that.

What do you know about Pittsburgh's reform efforts over the last five years?
I don't claim to know them as well as people who live in Pittsburgh. But I know them to the extent that Pittsburgh still has a low-performing school system. It's getting better, but it's still low-performing.

When you come here tomorrow, you're supposed to address specifically the issue of the racial-achievement gap, which city school districts all across the country are grappling with. How can schools tackle this problem?
There's no single, short answer to that. But what you want to do is set the same expectations for all children. It begins with the issue of expectations. Many times you hear the conversation that students come in so many years and grades behind [where they should be]. The fact remains that we get kids at 3 years old in our school systems. How far can they really be behind? And [some] say, "Well, very far." You can't catch them up? I mean, the first two years a child is just trying to walk and pee and poop in the right place. So how far can they really be behind?

There are schools that remove the achievement gap. There have been years in which we've done really well, and there have been years in which we haven't. When we've done it well, it's because we put the same expectations on every child.

More SCI-Pittsburgh abuse allegations surfacing

Posted By on Fri, Sep 23, 2011 at 11:19 AM

As City Paper first reported on Wednesday, allegations have begun to surface involving Pittsburgh prison officials who are apparently at the heart of a grand-jury investigation involving the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh. 

Grand-jury deliberations are secret, and so the allegations at issue are hazy. But as we reported, one former SCI-Pittsburgh inmate, Rodger Williams, has filed a civil accusing one of the 8 suspended guards of sexual assault. Williams accused corrections officer Harry Nicoletti Jr. of "harass[ing], rap[ing], and sexually assault[ing]" him over a nine-day period in April 2010. Our story also noted that Williams' suit wouldn't be the last: "[A]nother inmate plans to file a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse at SCI-Pittsburgh. According to that inmate's family and attorney, the suit could be filed as early as this week."

That suit was indeed filed on Thursday, as Rich Lord of the Post-Gazette reports today. This time, the plaintiff is a "John Doe," but once again, Nicoletti is being accused of sexual abuse. The suit also names other prison guards and officials who, John Doe contends, allowed the abuse to happen --despite pleas from the prisoner's parents. In the new suit, Lord reports

The graphic allegations range from threatening inmates with physical or disciplinary actions if they did not provide guards or other inmates with sexual favors to deliberately contaminating inmate food with bodily fluids. They were met with silence by the state Department of Corrections, which is one of the named defendants.


In January 2010, according to the complaint, the inmate known as John Doe was approached by correctional Officer Harry Nicoletti Jr. and given three choices: be anally raped, perform oral sex or touch the officer's genitals. He was threatened with "physical abuse" and the filing of "fraudulent misconducts" if he "did not [choose] how he was to be sexually assaulted that day," the complaint said.

"There is no truth to any of this whatsoever," said Mr. Nicoletti, who said he worked in the prison for 10 years. "It makes me sick to my stomach that someone can make accusations like that. It's totally false, and there's eight [correctional officers] out on the street with no pay, no benefits."

Nicoletti has also denied the allegations in the Williams suit. 

We've posted the full John Doe complaint here. Be advised that the allegations are just that -- unproven allegations in a civil suit, rather than criminal charges. And that the material in the complaint is graphic. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sympathy for the Blue Dog

Posted By on Thu, Sep 22, 2011 at 3:31 PM

OK, "sympathy" may be too strong a word. But Jason Altmire deserves ... I don't know ... pity? The kind of liberal compassion that blames social ills for a person's shortcomings?

Yesterday, Altmire was one of just six Democrats to vote in favor of HR 2068, a House GOP measure that would fund disaster-recovery efforts by gutting a $1.5 billion hybrid-car program. (Yes, you read that right: The GOP was only willing to help disaster victims if government did less to help domestic manufacturing. Why do they hate America so much?)

Altmire's vote put him at odds with the overwhelming majority of Democrats; his vote positioned him instead alongside suburban Republican Tim Murphy, House majority leader Eric Cantor and much of the rest of the GOP rank-and-file. (As well as fellow Pennsylvania Blue Dog Dem Tim Holden.) The measure lost anyway, 195-230, due to opposition from the overwhelming majority of Democrats, and about 40 ultra-conservative Republicans who wanted the bill to go farther. It's unclear how; perhaps by requiring the unemployed to do a little dance before getting benefits.

And what thanks does Altmire get for his vote? Just today, the National Republican Congressional Committee sent out the latest in a looooong line of attack e-mails ... accusing Altmire of voting in lockstep with other Dems:

"Jason Altmire has been a loyal ally to President Obama’s policies of taxing, spending and over-regulating which have made a bad economy far worse," said NRCC Communications Director Paul Lindsay. "Voters are noticing across the country, which means that Altmire's constituents in Pennsylvania will surely hold him accountable for continuing to support Obama’s same failed Democrat policies."

There's just no pleasing some people. 

Political news that DOESN'T make me want to kill myself

Posted By on Thu, Sep 22, 2011 at 12:25 PM

This space has largely remained quiet on the race for Allegheny County executive race. That will change in the days ahead, but part of the reason it's been so quiet is that your City Paper editor finds it depressing. We have two candidates -- Democrat Rich Fitzgerald and Republican D. Raja -- who are smart guys running dumbed-down campaigns. Could we have an election where the mere fact of supporting a tax increase somehow, somehwere, isn't treated as some short of shameful behavior?

Fitzgerald is blasting Raja for backing a stormwater levy in Mt. Lebanon. This despite the fact that, as Pittsburghers know all too well, stormwater runoff can be a life-or-death issue. Raja, meanwhile, is taking Fitzgerald to task for backing taxes on drinks and hotels/car rentals. Fitzgerald, echoing county executive Dan Onorato's defense of the hikes, notes that the proceeds are being used to shore up mass transit -- and that the other option was a property tax hike. 

I realize this is all your typical political posturing. And that part of what's driving it is the fact that the candidates have so few differences on other substantive issues (like drilling for natural gas). But at the federal level, we're seeing a Tea Party movement that seems to embody the belief that any tax increase for any purpose -- no matter how worthy -- is ipso facto a terrible thing. These are people willing to jeopardize federal disaster aid -- hell, the federal government iself -- in the service of that cause. Be nice if a Democrat, and a guy styling himself as a more thoughtful Republican, weren't playing into that mindset.

So to move on to some other political news that makes me somewhat less depressed ...

I'm a little late in posting this, but our friends at the Gertrude Stein Political Club -- those pro-choice, pro-LGBT  stalwarts -- have released their list of political endorsements for the upcoming election. At the top of fight card, Fitzgerald has earned the group's backing in the county exec race. At the city level, the group has backed council's incumbents in districts 1, 3, and 7 -- Darlene Harris, Bruce Kraus, and Patrick Dowd. But in district 5 it remains skeptical of Corey O'Connor (the group backed his challenger, Chris Zurawsky, in the primary). Nor has it backed District 9 incumbent Ricky Burgess, for reasons that are probably obvious

If, like everyone else, you're having difficulty deciding what to do in judicial races, be advised that the club is backing Common Pleas judicial candidates Alex Bicket and Mike Marmo. As for state level judicial contests, it is backing Democrats Kathryn Boockvar for Commonwealth Court, and David Wecht for Superior Court. 

Find the full list of endorsements here (Wecht isn't on the list; he was a late addition), and the accompanying press release here

And in other endorsement news, it's never too soon to start looking ahead to 2012. I guess. 

A couple months back, I noted that there was some buzz about Dan Onorato's potential interest in running for Auditor General -- a position that will become vacant after 2012 because incumbent Jack Wagner is term-limited.

That's still a possibility, but political insiders I talk to say that if Onorato is interested, he needs to get a move on. Because while the primary isn't until next spring, state Rep. Eugene DePasquale of York is already campaigning hard. 

This morning, in fact, DePasquale's campaign released a list of 40 political endorsements from around the state. Many of them are county committee chairs and the like from far-flung locales, but a handful come from Onorato's backyard. Among them:

  • Ed Gainey, Chair, Pittsburgh City Democratic Committee
  • Phil Scolari, Chair, Penn Hills Democratic Committee
  • Tonya Payne, Chair, 1st Ward Committee of Pittsburgh
  • Karen Rollins-Fitch, Treasurer, 12th Ward Committee of Pittsburgh
  • Kenneth Wolfe, Secretary, 18th Ward Committee of Pittsburgh
  • Jimmy Layne, Leader, 21st Ward Committee of Pittsburgh
  • Robert Lewis, Sr, Leader, 22nd Ward Committee of Pittsburgh
  • Carmella Mullen, former Vice-Chair of Allegheny Democrats
  • Jessica McCurdy, Treasurer, 7th Ward Committee of Pittsburgh
  • Martin Michael Smotzer, State Committeeman and Chair of Whitehall Boro Democrats

Some of these names aren't surprising. Gainey, for example, was in attendance at a DePasquale gathering held at AVA this July. Still, it'll be interesting to see how wide a net he is able to cast. 

The AVA gathering itself was notable for the diversity of folks it drew. DePasquale is running as reformer, which appeals to good-government types anxious to renew the political culture. But he's also got roots in that culture: His grandfather was longtime Pittsburgh City Councilor Jeep DePasquale. So perhaps it's not surprising that he drew a crowd ranging from Lawrenceville community fixture Ronnie Deutsch to city council progressive standard-bearer Bill Peduto.

So it's an interesting coalition taking shape here. I mean, I can't remember the last time I saw Peduto and Tonya Payne agreeing on anything.

Friday, September 16, 2011

CMU overseas venture attracts criticism

Vastly differing perceptions of Rwandan leader apparent at CMU visit

Posted By on Fri, Sep 16, 2011 at 9:29 PM

Just hours before Carnegie Mellon University officials and the President of Rwanda formally announced plans to open a new branch of the university inside the East African country, roughly 40 human-rights activists gathered on campus today to denounce the move, calling President Paul Kagame a "dictator" and "war criminal."

Demonstrators opposing Paul Kagame's partnership with CMU - PHOTO BY CHRIS YOUNG

Meanwhile, about 15 counter-protesters demonstrating nearby praised the Rwandan president, and CMU's plans to partner with his government.

"We want students and the citizens of Pittsburgh to know that CMU is dealing with a war criminal," said Claude Gatebuke, a Rwandan native who now lives in Nashville, Tenn. "When universities sign contracts with Kagame, they're not forming friendships with the people in the [East African] region."

"This president places lots of emphasis on education," countered Godfrey Biravanga, a native of Rwanda who has lived in Pittsburgh for the last 10 years. "This partnership with CMU will continue to help Rwanda in its efforts to further develop the country."

Demonstrators supporting Paul Kagame's partnership with CMU - PHOTO BY CHRIS YOUNG

In a Sept. 15 press release, CMU announced plans to open a branch of the school in Rwanda's capital, Kigali, next year, offering graduate-level engineering programs. In addition to the academic partnership, the release stated, CMU will work with the Rwandan government "to develop an innovation incubator, advanced practical training programs, executive education programs and a mobility research center."

"Higher education is a key to success in the global economy," CMU President Jared L. Cohon said in the press release. "We are pleased to bring our expertise in mounting international programs and our culture of innovation to Rwanda and to contribute to the country's emergence as a regional technology hub."

Rwanda has come a long way since the genocide of 1994, when roughly 800,000 Rwandans were murdered during an ethnic dispute between the country's Hutu and Tutsi tribes. Since the genocide, some say, Rwanda has become a model for other African nations to follow. The country, often called Africa's "biggest success story," is now peaceful and economically stable, unlike many of its neighbors.

And some credit Kagame, who took over after the conflict, with leading the country's transformation.

"Kagame stopped the genocide," David Mugabe, a 25-year-old University of Pittsburgh student and Rwandan native, told City Paper as he demonstrated on Forbes Avenue in support of the Rwandan president's visit to CMU. "He's a hero. He's doing great for my country."

But human-rights activists protesting Kagame's visit just a few yards away said the truth about the Rwandan president is much more complex -- and, they argue, it's written in blood.

"Paul Kagame is responsible for the deaths of millions of Africans," said Kambale Musavuli, spokesperson for Friends of the Congo, an advocacy group supporting peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which borders Rwanda to the west. "Our demonstration is about justice."

Kagame's critics charge the Rwandan president with waging a "hidden war" in the Congo, where millions have reportedly died in fighting over the country's vast natural resources. Inside Rwanda, Kagame has also been criticized for suppressing free speech and threatening government opponents. In its 2011 World Report on Rwanda, Human Rights Watch lauded Rwanda's continuing "development and economic growth" but cited "numerous violations of civil and political rights, and the government failed to fulfill its professed commitment to democracy." The report singled out claims that Kagame's government had clamped down on independent media.

Kagame, who flatly denies the charges against him, is no stranger to protests. During demonstrations in Paris and Chicago earlier this year, protesters denounced the president's actions in Rwanda and Congo.

Today's protest at CMU was no different.

Protesters held signs -- "Kagame's business is blood" -- and chanted slogans -- "Paul Kagame, you must go!" and "CMU, shame on you!"

CMU's decision to partner with Kagame's government "spits on the lives" of those killed in Congo, Musavuli said.

"My message is: Give a war criminal tools, and he'll make war crimes," agreed Jeff Cech, a human-rights advocate with Congo Story. "Paul Kagame gets this brilliant praise for ending the genocide and setting up democratic values, and it's all whitewashing over the fact that he is a war criminal."

A CMU spokesperson did not immediately return phone calls for comment.

Yesterday, a coalition of African human-rights groups sent a letter to Cohon, criticizing him for partnering with Kagame.

"CMU's announcements about President Kagame's visit represent his story as one of triumph," the letter states. "We regret to inform you that your characterization is dangerously skewed, and that, in its haste to collaborate with President Kagame, your institution may become a collaborator ... by supporting an unjust, oppressive regime.

"If CMU is genuinely invested in peace and development in Rwanda, and if it is determined to cultivate a relationship with Kagame, we are insisting on greater caution and responsibility," the letter concludes. "We urge you to make your partnership with Kagame conditional on improvements in his human rights record and extension of political freedoms."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

New Hill District grocery store won't be home for the holidays

Posted By on Thu, Sep 15, 2011 at 11:58 AM

When city officials and community leaders broke ground on the Hill District Shop 'n Save in April, they planned to open the neighborhood's long-sought grocery store in time for Thanksgiving. But apparently, residents will have to hop a bus to the South Side to pick up their holiday turkey for at least one more year. A change in the project's construction manager, local officials say, has made it nearly impossible to hit that target date.

"It isn't going to be up by November," says Carl Redwood, who heads the Hill District Consensus Group. "We don't see anything up yet."

Indeed, the construction site at Centre Avenue and Heldman Street looks pretty bare, considering a 29,500-square-foot grocery store was supposed to open there in just three months. Construction crews have graded the site, but despite breaking ground roughly five months ago, they have yet to erect even the skeleton of the building.

So what's the hold-up?

As the Pittsburgh Courier was first to report last week, the Hill District Economic Development Corporation recently replaced the project's construction manager, causing some delays in the development process.

Jules Matthews, executive director of the Hill EDC, tells City Paper her organization originally hired the joint-venture team of Detroit-based L.S. Brinker and Pittsburgh-based CM Solutions to complete the site development, as they have been doing since the groundbreaking in April. But when the Brinker Group bid on a contract for constructing the vertical building roughly a month ago, she says, "We made the decision to go with Construction Management Innovation," a Wexford-based construction company.

"We're pleased with the work [Brinker Group] has done," says Matthews. But "There were a lot of reasons" why the Hill EDC decided to hire another construction firm to build the store. "A lot of it comes down to [our] very finite budget."

The project is expected to cost $8.5 million, a portion of which will be paid for by public and private contributors. The Pittsburgh Penguins, as part of a community-benefits agreement reached with the Hill District in 2008, are chipping in $1 million; the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority is contributing $1 million; Allegheny County is giving $750,000; and Jeff Ross, the grocer who will operate the store, plans to contribute at least $1 million.

Because of the change in contractor, Matthews acknowledges that the original target date will be hard, if not impossible, to hit. "We're not on track for Thanksgiving," she says. "[That] was just a goal."

Matthews says she'll find out later this week or early next week what the new construction schedule will look like. But she notes that contractual obligations require the store to be ready for Shop 'n Save to move in by New Year's.

Officials from Brinker Group and CMI did not return phone calls for comment.

City Councilor Daniel Lavelle, who represents the Hill District, says the construction delays aren't a huge concern. After all, "The Thanksgiving date was always a very ambitious goal," he says, adding that the change in construction managers "was in the financial interests" of the Hill EDC. "My larger goal is to see the grocery store open. And I believe that will occur."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

UPMC/Highmark: Picking the Biggest Loser

Posted By on Wed, Sep 14, 2011 at 3:54 PM

One of the problems with the UPMC/Highmark dispute, obviously, is deciding which side to detest more. It was clearly a problem for the 300 folks who showed up at Soldiers and Sailors Hall Sept. 8, where they gathered for a town hall meeting convened by state Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-Blogspot). 

The meeting's "plague on both your houses" tone was best summarized by community leader Aggie Brose.  After hearing representatives from both Highmark and UPMC present their sides of the argument, she said, "I'm just in complete awe that you are our healthcare providers. Shame on you." 

By evening's end, it wasn't any clearer who has more to be ashamed of. But you can say, I think, that UPMC is the more likely scapegoat for what's wrong with healthcare today.

At issue, of course, was what Ferlo called "a very ugly divorce" brewing between the health giants. Highmark has announced plans to acquire the teetering West Penn Allegheny Health System (WPAHS), the long-suffering, weaker rival to the UPMC juggernaut. UPMC, for its part, contends that if Highmark is going to compete with its own hosptials, UPMC will no longer accept Highmark subscribers, forcing them to pay higher "out of network" costs. Or get another insurer.

Both sides made presentations, but I'll skip Highmark's. For one thing, it was really boring. For another, Highmark has the easier case to make. The long-resented insurer is taking one of the few actions anyone has approved of: By acquiring WPAHS, it is keeping hospitals open and hundreds of healthcare workers employed. Even Ferlo -- who repeatedly referred to Highmark as "the behemoth" during the proceedings -- supports its acquisition of WPAHS. 

Conversely, UPMC's position will limit access for Highmark subscribers -- the hospital chain is doubling down on being dislikable. So their presentation was much more interesting to watch ... especially because they're still trying to convince us they're our pals. 

Tom McGough, UPMC's general counsel,  began his presentation with a series of questions designed, in the best lawyerly fashion, to lead the audience to a predetermined conclusion. He began by asking for a show of hands from all those who felt insurance prices were too high. From there, he invited the crowd to weigh in on whether he thought competition would bring down those premiums. And finally, he asked: "How many people believe that if [those competitors] ... struck an agreement, the results of that agreement will be lower healthcare costs."

Thus did McGough seek to turn the issue on its head, suggesting that an agreement between UPMC and Highmark would be monopolistic. And monopolies, as we all know, are bad. 

Ordinarily, this would have been a clever argument. Ferlo's event attracted a lot of single-payer advocates -- they still had signs, God bless 'em -- who of course are predisposed to be suspicious of corporate power. And McGough was inviting them to imagine a smoke-filled room in which these healthcare giants would greedily conspire to ... to ... well, to do what, exactly?

"We can't know!" shouted out one audience member when McGough asked about what would happen to costs should the behemoths conspire. 

Because after all, what's the worst they could do? Raise rates? We're used to that by now. How about forcing some large percentage of us to risk losing our doctors? That's what UPMC is pushing for now.

McGough has tried making a similarly tough case elsewhere. In testimony before a state House committee last month, he warned that even if Highmark had a contract with UPMC, it would dissuade patients from using UPMC doctors. Instead, he warned, Highmark "can create the illusion of 'choice' for its subscribers while pushing them, in ways both subtle and unsubtle, into its integrated system" of WPAHS hospitals. Apparently, UPMC prefers to deny access to Highmark subscribers right off the bat. I'm sure you can see why that's an improvement. I mean, at least you can't accuse it of being "subtle."

Suspicion of Highmark would, of course, be natural. But part of UPMC's problem is this: It's trying to insist that consumers would suffer if it worked alongside Highmark ... even though it has done precisely that for many years. 

At Ferlo's event, for example, McGough kvetched about the massive cash reserve that Highmark had been able to build up. That cash reserve, after all, is what Highmark will be using to finance the WPAHS acquisition. Then again ... Highmark ALSO previously used its cash to help UPMC build its sparkly new Children's Hospital. You didn't hear UPMC complaining about big cash reserves back then, did you?

What's happening here is obvious. Both UPMC and Highmark have benefited mightily from the relationship they maintained all these years. Now the rules are changing, and UPMC suddenly wants us to blame Highmark for our discontent ... while UPMC is busily insisting that it's on our side.

The most laughable moment at Ferlo's gathering, in fact, came when McGough -- in a transparent bid to pander to a left-leaning crowd -- said that UPMC head Jeffrey Romoff supports single-payer healthcare. 

"Is Highmark in favor of single-payer?" he asked, with a slight sneer. 

Well, obviously not. And on some level, it would make sense for Romoff to champion single-payer. Dealing with a single government insurer would reduce paperwork, for one thing. And a government insurer could be great for a big hospital chain ... just as the Pentagon is great for Lockheed-Martin.

But funnily enough, I don't recall seeing Jeff Romoff at rallies for single-payer. (It's not like he hasn't had the opportunity: Single-payer advocates have held protests conveniently close to his office.) He clearly hasn't been leaning on UPMC's erstwhile lobbyist, Jason Altmire, to back it.

In any case, UPMC is doing the opposite of championing single-payer these days. Instead, it has committed itself to the idea that competition is the answer. In fact, UPMC officials have actually made a show of praising Highmark's plans to acquire WPAHS, "welcoming" Highmark as a competitor while refusing to do business with it. That's been the approach for awhile now, as McGough himself made clear in a June Post-Gazette op-ed.  In August, Romoff himself told state legislators that "Highmark is the only regional organization with the billions of dollars available in premium reserves required to sustain" WPAHS -- and thus the "competition and innovation" it provides.

A number of objections could be made to the free-market approach to healthcare. Among them is one I've made before: A sizable number of healthcare consumers don't get to choose their insurer; their employer makes that choice for them.  Which is why all this talk of giving people "choice" remains problematic.

So we end up with a parody of free-market rhetoric. 

On the one hand, UPMC is claiming that competition is a great thing for healthcare ... which would lead one to think Highmark is doing a great thing by entering the market.  But precisely because Highmark took this noble step, its customers must be punished -- by risking the loss of in-network access to their doctor. 

To use a medical metaphor: According to UPMC, competition is the lifeblood of the healthcare industry. WPAHS needed a transfusion to survive, and Highmark was the only suitable donor. So now that it seems the patient may survive, UPMC will try to kill off the donor instead.

I think I can understand why that makes sense to Jeff Romoff. It's still not clear, though, why it makes sense for anyone else. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

County Human Relations Commission presses for action on domestic-partner benefits

Posted By on Wed, Sep 7, 2011 at 4:23 PM

After more than a year of prodding, the Allegheny County Human Relations Commission has again asked Dan Onorato to extend domestic partner benefits to county employees.

The HRC previously recommended the county implement domestic-partner benefits last June. And in a Sept. 1 letter, the HRC asks that Onorato take advantage of an upcoming enrollment period to implement the change.

"Based on the experience of comparable public sector employers, and input from Highmark, the benefits can be extended at de minimis cost but will result in priceless improvement to the work culture for the county's LGBT employees," commissioners wrote in the letter. "It will also send a broad message of inclusion, equity and fairness."

The letter also cites a May meeting with Onorato, in which they say the county executive was "optimistic that domestic partner benefits could be extended before the end of the year -- at least for the non-union employees."

Committee chair Hugh McGough says the commission told Onorato in May that "we thought benefits were overdue based on representations he had made previously during his campaign for governor. He understood we are eager for him to take action before his term for county executive expires."

County spokeswoman Judi McNeil says that the administration is currently reviewing the issue and has not yet reached a decision.

The volunteer-led commission has been pushing for the benefits since the group's inception. After all, Onorato tasked them with studying implementation from the group's outset. But the group has largely been met with obstacles from the administration studying the feasibility of the change, and has repeatedly voiced its frustration with the delays. As City Paper has previously noted, one stumbling block has been how the benefit could be offered to union employees; workers are represented by 22 bargaining units and roughly half are in the midst of their four-year contracts.

McGough says that due to such complexities -- each union would have to request the benefit then bargain for it -- the commission's focus has been on securing the benefit for the non-represented workforce.

"You can't change terms and conditions of employment, even it's for the better. It can only be done through the negotiations process," McGough says. "We can't unilaterally change labor law."


CP Newsletters

Sign up to get the freshest content sent right to your inbox.

Digital Issues

This Week...

Read Past Issues

© 2017 Pittsburgh City Paper

Website powered by Foundation

National Advertising by VMG Advertising