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Demonstrators March Downtown Calling For Medicaid For All, Taxes For UPMC

Dozens joined Put People First Pennsylvania for a march Thursday at Mellon Green downtown. The public health care advocacy group is holding seven marches across the Commonwealth this week to call for Medicaid for all. 

Protesters in Pittsburgh also had demands for UPMC and urged public officials to strip the health care system of its tax exempt status. Among the demands: an accounting of how the federal aid money given to UPMC in the spring was spent. UPMC received one of the country’s largest COVID-19 aid packages totaling $1.1 billion.

“We deserve to know where UPMC is using those public funds at a time when more than 200,000 people have died from COVID-19,” said PPF-PA coordinator Ben Fiorillo. PPF-PA also called on UPMC to provide hazard pay for its essential workers.

The march started at Mellon Green before protesters walked along the city sidewalks chanting and carrying signs. They stopped at UPMC’s headquarters along Grant Street, Gov. Tom Wolf’s Pittsburgh office on Fifth Avenue and the City-County Building. Police were on the scene redirecting traffic.

At Gov. Wolf’s office, protesters called for the appointment of a state public health care advocate. The public official would be tasked with assisting Pennsylvanians in getting insurance, negotiating bills and challenging denied insurance claims.

“When the health of some of us is at risk, the health of all of us is at risk,” said Barbara White, a legislative coordinator with PPF-PA. “We need a public health care advocate in Harrisburg to protect the healthcare rights of every single resident in this state.”

At the City-County building, marchers called on Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to shore up the city’s finances by taxing UPMC. Organizers say the health care system has profited from the pandemic.

“The taxation status of such institutions is of course subject to state law,” Tim McNulty, a spokesman for Mayor Peduto, said in response to the demand.

“We’re here to call for an end to pandemic profiteering,” said PPF-PA member Briann Moye. The group suggested the revenue from taxing UPMC could fund social programs like affordable housing and subsidized health care.

Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam spoke in favor of a bill to provide paid sick leave to Allegheny County residents. The bill is modeled after one passed by Pittsburgh City Council earlier this year.

“But I am determined to make sure that ours is better. That ours protects all 1.3 million residents of this county to make sure that they can take days off when they’re sick. To make sure they can take care of their loved ones when they have to stay home when they’re sick,” Hallam said. “The only way to ensure that all employers comply with this is for Allegheny County Council to get off their [expletive] and do something.”

The group dispersed without incident. Put People First Pennsylvania will hold similar marches in Wilkes Barre, Altoona and Lancaster in the coming days. 

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.