Senator Wayne D. Fontana had the honor of visiting NASDAQ in New York City on December 9th. NASDAQ has a long history of partnering with and supporting emerging technologies. Senator Fontana encourages these start-up, high tech companies to make Pittsburgh their home, bringing with them good-paying jobs to our region.
Over the past few months, I have been asked time and time again why the state cannot force the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and Highmark to enter into another contract. Individuals are concerned about not only the cost of their health care, but even more importantly, what it will mean to their access to health care and the doctors and facilities that they choose.
Quite simply, the role of the government in the regulation of business is very limited. The Commonwealth cannot force two private companies into a contract. While there is a broad grant of power to Congress under the Commerce Clause, the state’s ability to regulate business has been framed by whether it impacts the health, safety and welfare of the residents of the Commonwealth. Health care access certainly seems to fit those requirements, but in the scenario between UPMC and Highmark, health care access isn’t being cut off – only changed and while additional regulations can be imposed, a contract cannot be forced on these two private organizations.
Generally, the Commonwealth has state insurance laws that impose requirements and limitations on the way insurance companies do business. There are numerous pieces of legislation that have been introduced to try to deal with this issue, including making substantial changes to the laws and regulations that govern health insurance. One such law, Act 94, sets forth rules for when a company decides to cancel a health care contract. It provides that notice must be given to the consumers that would be impacted and also allows the Insurance Commissioner to impose a six-month “cooling off” period where the contract would be extended.
I am a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 1358 (SB 1358) that takes some additional steps to protect the interests of consumers in this disagreement. The legislation amends existing state law to provide that the Insurance Commissioner may extend the terms of the existing contract to allow the marketplace to adjust to the many changes. It would ensure physician services are covered by the law, apply the law to contract expirations as well as terminations, allow for the use of the Act where a hospital has 5% or greater share of the available beds in defined areas and allows for the extension to last up to 36 months.
The argument has also been made to me that the state should strip one or both entities of their non-profit status. While I would strongly agree that both organizations are acting like for-profit businesses, it is not the Commonwealth that determines whether the companies are non-profit. That status is one determined by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Pennsylvania’s role is in determining whether the organization is an Institution of Purely Public Charity. That designation allows a company to be exempted from property taxes and can only be challenged by a taxing jurisdiction.
Because any changes to the Institutions of Purely Public Charity law could impact other charities in a negative way, I have attempted to broach the subject in a different way – by providing that organizations pay property taxes on the assessed land value of the property they own (not the buildings) as a contribution to the general welfare of the community in which they are located. Although Senate Bill 1281 (SB 1281) has not yet been considered by the Senate Finance Committee, I am hopeful that this issue will be taken up in the near future.
Another way to address this would be by imposing a payroll tax, an idea that has been proposed by many and one which I am considering. Both UPMC and Highmark are sitting on massive amounts of reserves and it is clear that both entities, while enjoying non-profit status, operate like for-profit businesses. A true non-profit would be returning those reserves back to consumers by lowering costs and insurance premiums. Short of that, one of these taxing options may be the best way to ensure these entities are contributing their fair share to the common good.
The constituents that I have spoken with are, understandably, concerned with the current impasse, but, again, it comes down to their access to health care – and the doctors and facilities that they choose. It’s a novel idea, but perhaps now is the very time that we should be talking about single payer health care.
The Family & Business Healthcare Security Act is not a new idea, but one that has been introduced in several subsequent legislative sessions. The current version, Senate Bill 400 (SB 400), is in the Senate Banking & Insurance Committee. The bill calls for quality and comprehensive health care for all permanent and temporary legal residents of the Commonwealth. It allows consumers to pick their own doctor, allows consumers and their doctor to determine the best course of treatment (not an insurance company), prohibits denial of coverage, reduces costs, makes health care consumer-based instead of employer-based and is portable.
For more information on the legislation, you can also visit www.healthcare4allpa.org for details on how the bill was created, how its proponents see it impacting health care in Pennsylvania, arguments for why we need it and whether Pennsylvanians want to go this route.
I hope that you will take the time to weigh in with your thoughts on the current dispute, the proposed legislation as well as single payer health care. I look forward to your input on this and other issues that are of interest and importance to you.
Marcellus Shale Legislation
House Bill 1950 (HB 1950) passed the Senate last week by a vote of 28-22. I voted against the bill as I did when Senate Bill 1100 (SB 1100) came up for a vote in the Senate in November. As I have stated in the past, any legislation needs to contain a fair impact fee and provide environmental protections, as well as providing the ability for local government officials to make decisions about drilling that are in the best interests of their respective communities. Neither of these bills does nearly enough to address these issues.
It is expected that this process will result in the appointment of a conference committee to negotiate a compromise. Three Senators and three Representatives will be charged with sitting down to try and find middle ground. If they are able to do so, that language would be presented to both the House and Senate for an up or down vote. There would be no opportunity for further amendment.
Pennsylvania has one of the largest reserves of natural gas in the country and we have an opportunity to be a leader in the production of natural gas while creating jobs in the process. We must balance that opportunity with a requirement that the Marcellus Shale industry pays their fair share while having a responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of our citizens.
All Senate offices will be closed on Monday, December 26th in observance of the Christmas holiday. My offices will re-open on Tuesday, December 27th as scheduled.
Today is the first day of Hanukkah which runs through December 28th. Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, December 25th, and Kwanzaa begins on Monday, December 26th and runs through January 1st. No matter what you celebrate this holiday season, I wish you and your loved ones a happy and safe holiday!
The address is the same, www.senatorfontana.com, but you will see a new look when visiting my website. Yesterday, I launched a new and improved website that is easier to read and navigate while still providing information of importance to my constituents. The new website also has a direct link so you can watch the proceedings unfold live on the floor of the Senate during session days. I encourage you to visit the website and let me know what you think.
LIHEAP Crisis Centers Open January 3rd
The Pennsylvania Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) will be opening its Crisis Program Centers on January 3rd. The LIHEAP Crisis Center is located in downtown Pittsburgh on the first floor of the Human Services Building at One Smithfield Street.
LIHEAP Crisis Centers provide assistance to low-income households that are experiencing heating emergencies during the cold weather season. To qualify for LIHEAP Crisis, an applicant must have an emergency situation caused by the utility service to the home being turned off and locked, being without fuel, having broken heating equipment or leaking lines that must be fixed or replaced and have a household income at or less than 150 percent of the federal poverty income level. For a family of two, this is an annual income not greater than $22,065.
Applicants also must provide proof of their heating emergency. This includes a letter from the utility company stating that the utility has been shut off, proof of social security numbers for all household members, and proof of gross income for a minimum of the last 90 days (more in some situations) for all household members. Proof of income for the last 30 days is required for fixed income clients, such as Social Security or Cash Assistance recipients.
For more information about the LIHEAP Crisis Program please call the Allegheny County Department of Human Services at 1-800-851-3838 or visit the Utility Assistance page on the County's Department of Human Services website.
Operation Safety Net to Host Public Vigil for Homeless
Operation Safety Net will host a public vigil on Wednesday, December 21st at 4:30 p.m. on the corner of Grant Street and Fort Pitt Boulevard in downtown Pittsburgh. The candlelight memorial service honors the memory of those who died on the streets while homeless in 2011. The vigil, first organized in 1988, also pays tribute to those who are surviving on the streets against great odds.
Operation Safety Net will be accepting donations during the winter season. They are in need of new hats and gloves to distribute to individuals who are homeless and receive services through Operation Safety Net or the Severe Weather Emergency Shelter. Donations will be accepted at the ceremony but can also be sent to Operation Safety Net, 1518 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15219. Monetary donations may be made using the secure online donation form on Pittsburgh Mercy Health System's website.
Homelessness is a problem that affects adults and children alike and it is something we need to act on now. Over 1.6 million children in the United States are homeless. Earlier this year I introduced legislation, Senate Bill 157 (SB 157), which would create a task force on Homeless Children’s Education so that we can begin to address the educational needs of homeless children and identify successful strategies for serving homeless students. SB 157 is currently being considered in the Appropriations Committee.
Local Students Can Compete for Prizes, National Recognition
Students in grades 7 -12 have an opportunity to earn scholarships and other awards by competing in the 2012 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Students can be recognized for their creative talents by submitting entries in nearly 30 different categories from poetry and short-story writing to painting and video game design. Winners at the regional level are celebrated at local ceremonies, have their work showcased in exhibitions, publications and at public readings, and have a chance to be recognized nationally.
Students can register by visiting the Pittsburgh Art Region website. To view the art and writing categories by which students will be judged, visit the website’s categories page. The deadline to submit entries is January 6th, except for videogames which is January 9th. The awards are sponsored by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. The Alliance presents over $250,000 annually in awards and scholarships to top winners and their teachers.
Did You Know…
Did you know that 67 students from Pennsylvania schools received national awards last year from the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers? Their works were exhibited at the National Scholastic Art & Writing Exhibition and Ceremony.
First Night Pittsburgh
The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust is once again producing First Night Pittsburgh on New Year’s Eve with the festivities beginning at 6:00 p.m. This family-friendly event provides the city the opportunity to ring in the New Year with a bang while celebrating Pittsburgh’s rich cultural assets including dance, music, theater, comedy, magic, visual art and film. First Night Pittsburgh features over 100 activities for children and adults of all ages in 45 venues throughout the Cultural District.
First Night Pittsburgh also features a fireworks show for children at 6:00 p.m. and a parade beginning at 8:00 p.m., before concluding with a performance by Rusted Root and The Countdown to Midnight and Future of Pittsburgh Grand Finale atop Fifth Avenue Place.
For a full schedule of events and a complete listing of the evening’s activities, please visit www.FirstNightPgh.org.
PPG Skating Rink Holiday Hours
If you’re looking for a fun, family-oriented, outdoor activity over the holidays, The Rink at PPG Place is holding special holiday hours. The large outdoor skating rink, located in the plaza at PPG Place, will be open on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve from 11:00 a.m. – midnight and on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day from noon – 8:00 p.m. On Christmas Eve, from 2:00 – 4:00 p.m., skaters can skate with Santa one last time before he embarks on his long night. Admission to the skating rink is $7 for adults and $6 for seniors and children. For more information on The Rink at PPG Place including general hours of operation and skating lessons, please visit The Rink at PPG Place website.
Keystone Oaks Hosting Girls Basketball Tournament
Keystone Oaks High School is hosting a two-day Girls Basketball Tournament on Tuesday, December 27th and Wednesday, December 28th. Keystone Oaks will be joined by teams from Obama Academy, Slippery Rock, and Brentwood. The tournament schedule is as follows:
| Tuesday, December 27th
Slippery Rock vs. Brentwood – 6:00 p.m.
Keystone Oaks vs. Obama Academy – 7:30 p.m.
|Wednesday, December 28th
Consolation Game – 6:00 p.m.
Championship Game – 7:30 p.m.
The McKees Rocks Bridge was built in 1931 at the cost of seven million dollars. It was the
largest bridge in Pennsylvania at that time, stretching 5,900 feet from Island Avenue to the newly constructed Ohio River Boulevard. It took two years to complete and was made of 12,000 tons of steel. Flood victims have sought refuge on it. World War II troops patrolled it. It has been a famous landmark along the Ohio River since its construction.
Offices of State Senator Wayne D. Fontana