UPMC, Can You Hear Us Now?

The Allegheny County Council on Wednesday patiently listened to taxpayers, teachers, parents, religious leaders, workers, and patients as they shared their stories of how UPMC’s actions affect their lives. We all know that, because it is the region’s largest employer, healthcare system, and tax-exempt charitable organization, what happens at UPMC affects us all.

More than 90 County residents signed up in advance for the Dec. 5 County Council hearing to share their concerns about UPMC’s status as a purely public charity, but the hearing room and overflow seating areas quickly filled to capacity when over 200 members of the community came to show their support.

Rev. David Thornton, pastor of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church in the Hill District, compared the community and the hospital to the tale of David and Goliath. Rev. Thornton delivered more than 2,000 cards signed by members of the community asking County Council to hold UPMC accountable to respect worker rights, create middle class jobs, and help fund transportation and education.

“We all need to be clear that the conversation we are having is about more than just money,” Rev. Thornton said. “We are here to confirm that the values we share matter enough to us to ensure that they are implemented by our largest public charity. We must say with one unified voice that we will define UPMC’s success by its degree of service to our community.”

However, UPMC seemed to have a hard time coming up with members of the community to share its stories, so four top executives came to try to justify UPMC’s millions of dollars in tax breaks. But after speaking for the first twenty minutes of the hearing, and with over 80 speakers that had not yet had an opportunity to speak, the UPMC executives turned their backs on community members gathered for the hearing and filed out of the building.

Molly Nichols, a volunteer with Pittsburghers for Public Transit who spoke just before the UPMC executives left the hearing said she couldn’t believe they got up and left.

“We’re the community they are supposed to be serving,” Nichols said. “If they’re too busy to listen to our concerns, do they really deserve all those tax-breaks?”

UPMC workers who work full time for the healthcare giant, often for decades, still struggle to get by on poverty wages. Some of these workers spoke at the hearing. They each spent the allotted three minutes sharing their concerns about the future of Pittsburgh.

“If we want our kids and grandkids to do more than just get by, we’re going to have to do something about our schools. Our schools and neighborhoods are suffering because UPMC says it’s a charity so they can get all those tax breaks,” said Christoria Hughes, a grandmother of seven who works in the UPMC Presbyterian cafeteria.

“That’s money that could and should be funding our schools so our kids have a chance at achieving their dreams and our dreams for them. Should Jeffrey Romoff and UPMC be allowed to live their dreams while we sacrifice ours? I have to say, no. That is not right,“ Hughes said.

UPMC calls itself a “$10 billion global health enterprise”, but receives $40 million a year in charitable tax exemptions from Allegheny County alone. The system has been criticized the last few years over its aggressive and predatory business practices, paying low-wages and shutting down hospitals in underserved areas, like Braddock.

The Allegheny County Council was asked by thousands of county residents to look into UPMC’s property tax-exemptions after the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a 4-part investigative series looking into UPMC’s tax-exempt property empire.

“It was amazing to see so many people at the hearing last night that want to make sure UPMC is paying living wages and giving more back to our community,” said UPMC unit secretary Terri Collins, who has worked at the hospital for 31 years. “This is the start of something very big and the call to hold UPMC accountable is only going to get louder in the New Year.”

The executives may have left the hearing Wednesday night, but they won’t be able to ignore the movement that has begun. Thousands of people are coming together to Make It Our UPMC.

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