Friday, November 2, 2007

John Murtha, Jason Altmire, and UPMC: The Politics of Personal Dishonesty

"No man ever went wrong overestimating the gullibility of the American people." (Attributed to P. T. Barnum) -- Note: Scroll down to see the press release of William Russell

Why am I so strongly backing the campaigns of congressional candidates William Russell (against John Murtha) and Melissa Hart (against Jason Altmire)? Read on . . . (

In 2006, UPMC – University of Pittsburgh Medical Center – a Pennsylvania health-care colossus -- gave total political contributions of more than $202,000 to Jason Altmire, congressman from the 4th District (west and north of Pittsburgh) and John Murtha, congressman from the 12th District (south and east of Pittsburgh).

Of course, these huge contributions came from the traditional “fat cats,” hospital administrators and wealthy doctors. Most UPMC employees, nurses, hourly workers, and the like, gave nothing to Altmire and Murtha.

What’s the relationship between Altmire and Murtha? They’re something like the Siamese Twins of Western Pennsylvania politics. In the last election, Altmire referred to Murtha as his “campaign manager.”

In 2006, UPMC was by far Murtha’s biggest contributor. As for Altmire, UPMC formerly employed him as its head lobbyist. As a congressman, his positions on health issues dovetail completely with those of his former employer.

Murtha is regularly cited as one of the most “corrupt” officials in Congress. If Altmire regards him as a role model, the voters in the 4th District have a lot to worry about.

UPMC advertises itself as a "non-profit." However, in the last fiscal year, it had a "surplus" (i.e., a profit) of $480,000,000! Many people, including yours truly, believe it achieves the surplus by overcharging both its customers and the U.S. government, which pays a good chunk of the bills (through Medicare and Medicaid) for health services.

The head of UPMC is a man named Jeffrey Romoff. He's extremely well-paid. The following is from the Pittssburgh Tribune-Review on May 22, 2007:

"The compensation of Jeffrey A. Romoff, president and CEO at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, jumped 17 percent last year -- to $3.3 million -- according to tax documents released by UPMC this morning.
In a prepared statement, the Oakland giant said UPMC's board of directors considers Romoff's pay appropriate, given the organization's size, complexity and accomplishments."

"Under Romoff's leadership, UPMC recently posted $6 billion in revenue. Romoff has been president and CEO of UPMC since 1992. His pay was $2.9 million last year."

If it wasn't John Murtha channeling tens of millions to UPMC, Mr. Romoff's compensation -- it's safe to assume -- would be much less.

Under Romoff's leadership, UPMC has been big on slogans -- and short on performance. For example, in the late 1990s, the company engaged heavily in a PR campaign to assert its supposed excellence in medicine. It told Pennsylvanians to "Choose your health care as if your life depended on it."

Let’s consider how Romoff personally reacted to that slogan. In 1998, Romoff found out he had prostate cancer, and presumably his life depended on how he handled it. He chose to have prostate surgery not at UPMC in Pittsburgh, but rather at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.When the embarrassing news leaked out, UPMC trotted out a hapless spokeswoman to explain.

She said Romoff had gone to Hopkins rather than his own hospital system because "the high visibility of his position made it necessary to maintain privacy."Later, Romoff -- in a rare moment of candor -- indicated that he made the decision because of Hopkins' superiority in matters urological.

One aspect in which UPMC truly does demonstrate superiority is in ensuring the support of elected officials. It does so by contributing heavily, directly and indirectly, to supportive politicians. For example, UPMC was the bigest contributor to the campaign of John Murtha. The donation of more than $192,000 was not exactly a donation made in the name of good government.

Instead, Murtha been a key figure in providing federal pork to fatten Romoff's health care empire.No so coincidentally, Murtha's own campaign -- engorged with UPMC money -- also contributed heavily to Jason Altmire's campaign war chest.

In gratitude, the new congressman cast his vote for the ethically challenged Murtha as Democratic majority leader.

So, what should you do about all these facts, other than get angry? Every individual and institution in Pennsylvania should reconsider ever using UPMC. In other words, follow the example of Mr. Romoff in going elsewhere. Granted, if you're a fan of political corruption and payoffs, keep patronizing UPMC facilities -- but be sure to bring your checkbook..

In the 4th and 12th congressional districts, there are at least 200,000 people -- the ones who voted for Melissa Hart (against Altmire) and Diana Lynn Irey (against Murtha) who deplore the political cynicism of UPMC. If that company can't see its way to being a "non-profit," at least it ought to be non-partisan.

As long as a few companies are buying their own politicians, our government "of, by, and for the people" is a myth. Yes, the actions of Murtha and Altmire have improved the financial health of UPMC, but they've done little or nothing to advance patient health.


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