Protests against Pittsburgh hospital expansion highlight city’s growing racial health disparities

Over 100 people spoke at a hearing in opposition to UPMC’s proposed $2 billion expansion.

More than 100 activists and employees took turns speaking at a packed Pittsburgh City Council hearing Tuesday on the proposed $2 billion expansion of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) in the city’s Uptown neighborhood. They were there to demand that the health care giant agree to higher wages and unionization for workers before it moves forward with expansion.

Prior to the hearing, opponents of the plan marched to the city council building and held a rally, asking for UPMC to form a community health benefits agreement that would guarantee an immediate increase of the minimum wage to $15 and would ensure that all Pittsburgh residents, regardless of their location or insurance, have equal access to health care. (UPMC recently approved a plan to do increase the minimum wage by 2021, but protesters say that, by then, $15 will no longer be a living wage.)

A rally by and for UPMC workers is taking place outside City Council chambers right now. They’re opposed to the multibillion dollar nonprofit expanding their locations without raising pay for employees.

UPMC must obtain the council’s approval before it can proceed with the expansion to build a vision and rehabilitation center in the up-and-coming Uptown neighborhood. The tax-exempt hospital chain is a non-profit, but opponents slammed it for raking in billions of dollars, while paying its workers “slave wages.”

UPMC one of, if not the biggest employers of state, would ask our workers to settle for slave wages while the “non profit” brings in a billion in profits.

“We’re here to remind UPMC that they are guests in our community. And when we say that we need a seat at the table, it’s because that’s our table,” Summer Lee, a Democratic socialist candidate for Pennsylvania state House, told the crowd at the rally.

Activists criticized UPMC for closing one of its hospitals in Pittsburgh’s Braddock neighborhood in 2010. UPMC claimed the hospital was “underutilized” and denied the community’s request to build an urgent care center in the area. The largely poor Braddock population (the per capita income is less than $20,000), which is more than 60 percent black, has been hit hard as a result.

Meanwhile, UPMC has disinvested in the communities that relied on them the most, abandoned us for their bottom line. Rebuilt in affluent communities and left behind the marginalized.

“People who have a lack of transportation, who have suffered from environmental hazards, and for a long time have not had access to other communities… for us, UPMC in Braddock was a lifeline,” Lee, a native of Braddock, told the city council. “UPMC made a business decision to abandon our community and relocate to a more affluent one. We were casualties of that decision.”

Others criticized UPMC for its lack of diversity in hiring nurses, with one speaker accusing the hospital of only hiring black people “to clean and cook,” according to Public Source.

UPMC is the Pittsburgh area’s largest single employer and Pennsylvania’s largest non-governmental employer, a goliath of nearly 80,000 employees.

Over the past several years, the health care giant has purchased and expanded dozens of hospitals, while also all but monopolizing the local insurance market. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported last spring, since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, hospital administrators have been eager to consolidate.

“Squeezed by lower reimbursement, rising costs for new technology and difficulty recruiting doctors is driving an increasing number of small hospitals into the arms of bigger systems,” the news outlet noted.

Nurses rally in front of UPMC McKeesport on Tuesday, May 22. (Credit: Screenshot, KDKA)
Hundreds of Pittsburgh-area nurses protest poor working conditions, threaten to strike. As UPMC expands, its treatment of workers seems to deteriorate. In 2015, the National Labor Relations Board in Pittsburgh filed a complaint against the conglomerate, highlighting more than a dozen violations of workers’ rights, including restricting unionization efforts and attempting to out employees who support unionization.

Health care, too, has suffered, with many activists wondering why UPMC has plans to build an eye care center in the midst of an opioid crisis. Speaking at the rally on Tuesday, UPMC registered nurse Lisa Sayre told the crowd that addiction care is much more of a priority in the city.

“In my work, I have seen much of this community’s need for addiction care, mental health services, and primary care and those needs are growing rapidly,” Sayre said. “Given the extra pressure of the opioid crisis, my colleagues sometimes have to treat patients… in the hallways.”

We’re calling on UPMC to develop a real agreement that makes sure that they are meeting the healthcare needs of all of us. – Lisa S. UPMC RN

“By talking about improving medicine for the medically over-served, while downplaying the needs of our under-served communities, we widen the health disparities between rich and poor, white and black,” Sayre added.

As Sayre noted in her speech, Allegheny County’s average infant mortality rate is higher than most developed countries, at 4.75. For black infants, the rate is almost triple that number, at a whopping 13.73. Activists at the rally questioned why UPMC has not made more investments in research and health care to help lower these numbers.

“This is a process and a time for you to listen. UPMC knows what people are needing. But their plan doesn’t do anything to address infant mortality in the region.” – Father Ryan

The city council is expected to vote on UPMC’s expansion plan at a later, undisclosed date. Council president Bruce Kraus (D) and council member Darlene Harris (D) both said they would not support the plan unless a community benefits agreement is reached.

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