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UPMC, Other Large Hospital Systems Increased Revenue During The Pandemic With Federal Aid

Keith Srakocic
Many large hospital systems ended 2020 with surplus funds, including UPMC, which received $460 million in federal support.

On today's program: UPMC and other large hospital systems throughout the country brought in hundreds of millions of dollars during the pandemic, we talk with a reporter who looked into these gains; Carnegie Mellon University’s new snake robot will be slithering underneath submarines and other aquatic machinery soon; and Quantum Theatre’s “10 for 21” adapts stories written in the 1300s and takes listeners on a journey through the city.

Wealthy hospital systems received millions in federal funds to weather the pandemic
(0:00 — 6:03)

By the end of last year, some of the wealthiest hospitals in the U.S came out with healthy bottom lines, in part thanks to federal relief funds. Pittsburgh’s UPMC is one of them.

“These are outright grants, and they were, specifically at the beginning, to offset costs of treating infected patients, purchasing ventilators, masks, gowns,” says reporter Christine Spolar, who co-authored a story about hospital bailouts with Jordan Rau for Kaiser Health News and Washington Post.

Spolar says these grants were later authorized to compensate for a drop in revenue from elective surgeries, which were cancelled to reduce the number of people in hospitals early in the pandemic. However, those surgeries eventually resumed as hospitals learned how to keep people safe.

According to the Kaiser Health News analysis, UPMC received $460 million in federal relief grants, and ended 2020 with $836 million in income, a 3.6% increase in operating margin.

UPMC is one of a few hospital systems that also has an insurance arm; Spolar says system administrators knew such a diverse revenue stream would help protect the hospital in the case of an emergency, like a pandemic.

Spolar says when she spoke to UPMC, in February and March of this year, the system was planning to spend what was left of the relief money, although some other systems decided to return some of the funds.

“Hospitals can hold on to the unspent relief funds until the end of July,” says Spolar. “When I talked to Ed Karlovich, [executive vice president and chief financial officer] here with UPMC, he said ‘We’re still in the process of incurring costs related to COVID.’”

A new snake robot is helping with underwater inspection work
(6:08 — 12:02)

A team from Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute has been testing a “Snake-bot” that can swim under water for inspection work and fit into tight spaces.

“This is new in that the components to make the robot work underwater are definitely new,” says Howie Choset, a professor of computer science and co-director of the Biorobotics Lab at Carnegie Mellon University. His team has previously developed snake robots that function on land.

“What makes driving these robots underwater especially challenging is that when you’re on land, you tell the robot, ‘Go to the right,’ the robot aims to the right and goes. When you’re underwater, if you ask the robot, ‘Go to the right,’ the front will go to the right and the back will go to the left,” says Choset.

Working underwater has required building components that can operate in a three-dimensional space, to move right, left, up and down.

“One of the envisioned applications for the underwater snake robot is to do inspection on naval ships as they’re coming into port,” says Choset. “Another application actually still is search and rescue.”

Maybe someday, Choset adds, the robot will be able to disassemble and reassemble on the fly, “like the Terminator 2 robot did, but a friendly version, of course.”

Quantum Theatre takes the audience on a pandemic walk
(12:05 — 18:00)

Theatre, dance and music are still trying to find their footing as we round the corner on another year in the pandemic.

Quantum Theatre in Pittsburgh is taking a foray into a new kind of performance. A self-guided experience takes you through downtown and Frick Park. At each stop, participants will pop on headphones and listen to a story.

The performance was inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” written in 1348 during the Black Plague of Florence.

“Since we’re in another pandemic, I thought, let me go back to that source and see what that’s about,” says John Shepard, who directed this show for Quantum Theatre. The premise of the Decameron is seven men and three women leave Florence during the plague and every day, for ten days, tell a story.

“They’re not at all about living through a plague or any of that kind of stuff, they’re kind of escapist stories, they’re very bawdy stories,” says Shepard.

Quantum Theatre picked ten stories from “The Decameron,” adapted the characters to modern day, and set them to an urban and rural walking experience, though audience members can listen to them from anywhere.

“I think that Boccaccio wrote this in many ways to take the reader away from the troubles that they’re living through and they are more or less escapist, fantastical if you will,” says Shepard. “But they’re also sardonic, there’s a lot of satire.”

10 for 21” is available to listen from Quantum Theatre’s website.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

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