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State drops controversial pro-union language in Medicaid contracts

The Pennsylvania State Capitol building.
Patrick Doyle
90.5 WESA

The Wolf administration has dropped a controversial contract provision that would have required hospitals or any other medical provider receiving Medicaid funds to have certain labor agreements in place.

The language was included in draft contracts between the state Department of Human Services and managed care organizations, which disburse Medicaid funds to health care providers. It said a managed care organization could “not include in its network any Provider with a history of one or more work stoppages during the [previous] five years … unless the Provider is or becomes a signatory to a valid collective bargaining agreement or is or becomes a signatory to a labor peace agreement” with a union seeking to organize its workers.

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

More than 3.5 million Pennsylvanians are enrolled in the Medicaid program, commonly known as Medical Assistance. The program generally covers people with disabilities, as well as low-income individuals and families, and is jointly funded by the state and federal governments. Pennsylvania added this new language in draft versions of its latest multi-year contract for Medicaid services, which would take effect later this summer.

Supporters of the language said it would ensure that patient care would not be disrupted by labor disputes. But the provision was viewed in some quarters as an effort to help the Service Employees International Union Healthcare PA, which has sought for years to unionize UMPC employees, and which is a major contributor to Democratic politicians.

The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, which represents health care providers, filed a lawsuit opposing the measure. That court case has since been withdrawn.

“We appreciate the administration working with the hospital community to prioritize Pennsylvanians’ ability to receive high-quality care,” the association said in a statement last week.

Other health care and human services providers and Republican legislators also opposed it, arguing that the language amounted to forced unionization that they said could hurt patients in rural areas if their hospital was barred from accepting Medicaid.

“I'm certainly glad it's been pulled back. I don't think it was good, particularly for accessibility to care in rural areas,” said state Rep. Jesse Topper, a Bedford County Republican who grilled Wolf administration officials over the issue at budget hearings earlier this year.

A representative of SEIU Healthcare PA did not return a call for comment Monday. But state human services officials said they dropped the provision because it would have taken effect at roughly the same time as an unrelated major change for the state Medical Assistance program, and would have caused too much confusion for providers.

“[I]n the midst of plan changes and with a significant number of consumers having to select a new [health] plan, moving forward with the work stoppage provision could lead to additional confusion and concern among a vulnerable population," said Ali Fogarty, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services. "Therefore, the work stoppage provision has been removed.”

“Although the provision has been removed from the procurement, the Wolf Administration urges all health systems to respect frontline workers’ right to have a voice and seat at the table to make improvements to working conditions and ensure continued quality care," Fogarty added. "Ensuring access to health care remains a top priority of the Wolf Administration and achieving that goal must start with supporting our health care workforce.”

The state's updated Medicaid contracts are set to go into effect Sept. 1.

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.
Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.