Last week, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and Highmark announced their physician contract, which was set to expire on June 30, 2012, would be extended for one year. Under this agreement, Highmark customers will be able to access UPMC hospitals and physicians at in-network rates through June 30, 2013. While this news provides some temporary relief to the millions of customers affected by this ongoing dispute, it does not mean a long-term agreement is on the horizon. Once this new agreement expires, consumers could still be faced with unaffordable out-of-network costs and a lack of choices in the facilities and doctors they can use in-network.
As I have indicated before, the legislature cannot force these two entities to enter into an agreement. I and many of my colleagues have introduced various pieces of legislation over the last few months as a result of this dispute, with the ultimate goal of bringing the two sides back to the negotiating table to reach an agreement. Just last week the House overwhelming passed House Bill 2052 (HB 2052), I support this bill as it is currently written, that would require the Insurance Department to hold investigative public hearings in the event of a dispute between providers and insurers. The bill also grants power to the Department to order parties into mediation and if mediation fails, the parties would enter into binding arbitration. I am also a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 1358 (SB 1358) which is before the Senate Appropriations Committee. The bill would give the Insurance Commissioner authority to extend physician contracts and delay the end of both types of contracts by up to 36 months. Legislative action and public pressure definitely played a role in this one-year extension being agreed to by both entities, but more needs to be done to protect consumers.
While the idea of a real estate and payroll tax for these two entities is something the legislature should be discussing, it does not address the issue of providing affordable, quality access to health care. This is why I support implementing a single payer health care system in Pennsylvania. The Family & Business Healthcare Security Act, Senate Bill 400 (SB 400), is before the Senate Banking & Insurance Committee. This bill would reduce costs for consumers, 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 due to pre-existing conditions, makes health care consumer-based instead of employer-based and is portable.
What has been lost in this dispute between UPMC and Highmark is what is best for patients. The constituents I have talked to about this issue are angry at how these two giants are behaving but more than that, they are scared. When you have a health issue or are being treated for a medical condition, you have enough stress without worrying about whether your doctor is in-network or out-of-network, whether your insurance covers a certain procedure, or if you are permitted to see a certain doctor. Our region is fortunate to have some of the world’s best doctors and facilities. Our goal needs to be ensuring consumers have access to these doctors and facilities at an affordable cost.
Mid-Year Budget Briefing
The administration offered a mid-year budget briefing last week to update the General Assembly and the public. During that briefing, the Budget Secretary reported that at of the end of November, general fund collections were $345 million below estimate for the year to date. Sales tax collections ($19 million below estimate), personal income tax collections ($129 million below estimate), and corporate tax collections ($167 million below estimate) all were below estimate on a year to date basis. The Governor anticipates fiscal year-end tax collections to be $500 million lower than his original estimate.
In his review of the briefing, Senator Vincent Hughes, Chair of the Democratic Appropriations Committee, pointed out that while general fund collections are below estimate, they are $212 million above last year’s collections and are on a better pace than original estimates. Sales tax collections ($135 million higher) and personal income taxes ($247 million higher) are both higher than last year’s collections through November and are on pace to exceed original estimates.
For more detailed information on the Commonwealth’s current financial status and its budget, you can visit the Budget Office's website to see the full presentation.
As we near the end of the calendar year, it’s always good to look back at what has been accomplished. It has been a busy and productive year in the 42nd Senatorial District. Following is a quick synopsis of action:
Task Force on Homeless Children’s Education
Senate Bill 157 (SB 157), jointly sponsored by myself and Senator Pippy, creates a task force on Homeless Children’s Education to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the homeless child population throughout the Commonwealth. The ultimate goal is in improving educational opportunities for homeless children. In Allegheny County, the number of children receiving homeless services increased more than 38% in January 2009. The average age of these children is 7.5 years old. We must act now. The sooner such legislation is enacted, the sooner we can begin identifying ways to protect these children, ensure that they have access to education and services at their most vulnerable times and position the Commonwealth to become a leader in the advocacy for and the provision of services to these children. SB 157 is currently before the Appropriations Committee.
Child Abuse by School Employees
My legislation that changes how suspected abuse by school employees is handled, Senate Bill 549 (SB 549), received a great deal of press coverage because it would have changed the reporting requirements in the Sandusky abuse case. The legislation lowers the threshold for when suspected child abuse by a school employee must be reported and investigated and requires school employees to report suspected child abuse directly to law enforcement. I first introduced a version of this bill in September 2005, shortly after I was elected. Since then, I have worked with stakeholders to continue to improve the bill. The bill was unanimously reported out by the Senate Aging & Youth Committee and is currently before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
In response to the Sandusky abuse case, the General Assembly has established a task force to perform a comprehensive review of child abuse laws and make recommendations on how to improve those laws and further protect our children. It is my hope that the task force will incorporate my legislation into its recommendations.
Reconfiguring Port Authority Board
In March, I introduced legislation, Senate Bill 926 (SB 926), to reconfigure the Port Authority Board to ensure better representation for those impacted by decisions of the board. The Commonwealth currently provides a significant portion of the Port Authority’s budget, yet has absolutely no say in the decisions made by the board in regard to service or other issues. SB 926 would require the board include one member each of the Senate and House of Representatives, one member of the Transit Council, one member from labor and one member from County Council. Designating members of the board would, hopefully, provide a clearer picture of the state’s responsibility and capability to address funding and to identify options available locally.
Moratorium on Court-Ordered Assessments
In October, I introduced legislation, Senate Bill 1280 (SB 1280), to provide for a temporary moratorium on court-ordered reassessments through November 2012 for all counties undertaking a court-ordered reassessment of real property. Allegheny County property owners are being treated unfairly because of the ongoing court-ordered reassessments. While the residents here have seen numerous reassessments in the past decade, there are another 22 counties which have not completed inspection of their properties since the mid-1980’s. Our municipalities have seen residents move to neighboring counties which have lower real estate values. A state-wide moratorium would allow us to help Allegheny County communities avoid the tremendous burden that comes with reassessment while protecting homeowners and reforming the current system. I am hopeful the General Assembly will consider this legislation in the new year at which time I would amend to extend the deadline by another year.
Large Non-Profits Paying Fair Share
Senate Bill 1281 (SB 1281) would require all non-profits to pay on the assessed value of their land (no buildings) and would exempt the first $200,000 of total land value of all properties owned by the entity. I recognize that many non-profits provide services that the government would otherwise have to perform and that many of these institutions are central to the revitalization of the communities in which they are located. My bill seeks to address the imbalance created by organizations where profit is clearly their driving factor. We see some non-profits in the community buying up real estate and expanding, getting bigger and bigger while making decisions that actually harm our communities. Asking them to pay taxes on only their land value starts to address that inconsistency. SB 1281 is currently before the Finance Committee.
IGA Opens in Beechview
On September 14th, after several years of work, I was elated to participate in the grand opening of the Market on Broadway IGA in Beechview. Growing up in Beechview during the 1950’s I always remember having a grocery store serving the community and I’m proud to have played a role in bringing one back to Beechview. When everyone can work together, great things happen in our neighborhoods. I am proud that my working relationship with the Mayor and the Urban Redevelopment Authority allowed us to secure a commitment from the IGA and am hopeful the community will support this store in the years to come as this can serve as a catalyst for the Beechview business district.
South Hills Retirement Residence
This summer, I was thrilled to participate in the grand opening of the 106-unit South Hills Retirement Residence on Mt. Washington. I was able to support this $23.5 million project by securing a Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) grant to assist in the funding and am proud to have played a part in a community effort that made this project a reality. The two-year revitalization project converted the decaying old South Hills High School into senior citizen apartments, common areas and commercial space. Transforming a building that sat vacant for 20 years into what it is today shows what can be done when government makes an investment in economic development and works together with the private sector.
Skills for Success: The Fontana Series
I partnered with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to provide grant funding for a series aimed at building skills that help job seekers get the position they desire. I sponsored seven sessions of the "Skills for Success: The Fontana Series." Attendees received assistance in building powerful resumes and cover letters, learned about the ins and outs of online applications and received personal feedback that can make the difference in their job search. Looking for the right opportunity is challenging, time-consuming and competitive so I was pleased to be able to offer the “Skills for Success” opportunity to give job seekers a leg up in the search.
All Senate offices will be closed Monday, January 2nd in observance on the New Year’s holiday. Offices will re-open on Tuesday, January 3rd as scheduled. I wish you and your loved ones a safe and happy New Year!
PA 529 College Savings Program - 2011 Tax Benefits
As the year draws to a close, I want to make you aware that opening or contributing to a Pennsylvania 529 College Savings account before December 31st can help reduce your 2011 Pennsylvania state taxable income. The Pennsylvania 529 College Savings Program offers two distinct plans - the PA 529 Guaranteed Savings Plan and the PA 529 Investment Plan. Taxpayers can deduct up to $13,000 per beneficiary in PA 529 contributions from Pennsylvania taxable income on their state returns for 2011. Married couples filing jointly can deduct up to $26,000 per beneficiary if each spouse has a taxable income of at least the amount deducted.
To encourage more families to start saving for college in a tax-advantaged way, the PA 529 College Savings Program is offering free enrollment - a $50 savings - for all new PA Guaranteed Savings Plan accounts opened before December 31st. You can enroll online at www.PA529.com and when prompted for a code type “StartToday.” For more information on both plans, visit www.PA529.com.
Did You Know…
Did you know the Pennsylvania Treasury Department services more than
160,000 PA 529 College Savings Accounts?
Holiday Fire Safety Tips
It’s that time of year again where many homes are transformed through the addition of candles, trees, garland, lights, family and celebration. With all the business of the season, we can sometimes forget about safety, which is why Allegheny County Emergency Services wants to share these helpful holiday fire safety tips with you:
- Keep matches, lighters and candles out of the reach of children
- Avoid smoking near flammable decorations
- Test all smoke, carbon monoxide and explosive gas detectors
- Never leave candles unattended
- Never leave cooking unattended
- Do not overload electrical outlets or extensions
- Check water on live Christmas trees daily
- Modern artificial Christmas trees should be fire resistant
- Make an emergency plan and share it with all family and visitors
- Make sure family and visitors know how to contact the fire department
To read more about holiday fire safety tips, please visit the County's website.
Martin Luther King Downtown Toiletry Drive
The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership (PDP) is partnering with Pittsburgh Cares to launch a Downtown Toiletry Drive, January 2nd through January 13th. PDP is accepting donations of new, unopened toiletries such as toothpaste, shampoo, soap, feminine products, towels, toothbrushes, and deodorant. Items donated will be collected and packaged by local college students on Martin Luther King Day, January 16th, and then distributed to shelters, churches and other organizations in need of supplies.
If you are interested in making a donation, please visit the PDP office at 925 Liberty Avenue, 4th Floor, between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday between January 2nd - 13th. For more information on the Toiletry Drive, please contact Vivan Croft at email@example.com.
PATCH Celebrates One-Year Anniversary
Congratulations to the editors and writers of the western Pennsylvania Patch.com websites on their one-year anniversary! Since launching last year, Patch websites have done a great job of providing news specific to local communities, information that is sometimes difficult to obtain through traditional news sources. The emergence of Patch websites has helped fill a void and is a great way to find out about what’s going on near you. Check out the community Patch websites for Dormont-Brookline, Baldwin-Whitehall, and Chartiers Valley and be on the lookout for additional Patch sites in other communities.
Steelers’ Super Bowl Trophies on Display
All this week you can get an up-close glimpse of all six Steelers’ Vince Lombardi trophies at the Carnegie Science Center on the North Shore. The trophies are on display daily through January 1st and photographs are permitted. Viewing of the trophies is free with paid admission. Visit the Carnegie Science Center website for daily and holiday hours.
Montour, Carlynton Host Holiday Tournaments
Montour High School is hosting a two-day Boys Basketball Holiday Tournament on Wednesday, December 28th and Thursday, December 29th. Each night will feature two games featuring host Montour, along with Fox Chapel, Clairton, and South Park. The schedule is as follows:
|Tuesday, December 28th
Clairton vs. Fox Chapel - 6:00 p.m.
Montour vs. South Park - 7:30 p.m.
|Wednesday, December 29th
South Park vs. Fox Chapel - 6:00 p.m.
Montour vs. Clairton - 7:30 p.m.
Carlynton High School is hosting a two-day Girls Basketball Holiday Tournament on Wednesday, December 28th and Thursday, December 29th. Each day will feature two games featuring host Carlynton, along with Bishop Canevin, Canon-McMillan, and Trinity Academy. The schedule is as follows:
|Wednesday, December 28th
Bishop Canevin vs. Canon-McMillan - 2:00 p.m.
Carlynton vs. Trinity Academy - 4:00 p.m.
|Thursday, December 29th
Consolation Game - 6:00 p.m.
Championship Game - 8:00 p.m.
In 1860 the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Manchester merged with then Allegheny City. Manchester went on to serve as the industrial center of that city. Industries such as Union Salt Works, Pittsburgh Locomotive and Car Works, La Belle Steel, the Star Iron Works, Pittsburgh Brass Company, Allegheny County Light Company, Pittsburgh Clay Pot Company, Consumer's Ice Company, and Hall and Speer Plough Works, among others, were located in Manchester.
Offices of State Senator Wayne D. Fontana