Pennsylvania’s top court has sent the ongoing feud between the state’s attorney general and healthcare giant University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) back to a lower court.
The state’s Supreme Court ruled 4-3 and issued an opinion (PDF) Tuesday in which it says the Commonwealth Court, an appellate court, has the power to decide when UPMC’s agreement with rival Highmark Health ends. At present, that temporary agreement is set to end June 30, sparking a flurry of legal action that began in February.
In the opinion, Justice David Wecht says Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro has asked the court to evoke “extraordinary” powers to extend the consent decree.
“At this juncture, we do not deem it necessary to extend the termination date of the consent decrees through the extraordinary powers the [AG] has asked to evoke,” Wecht wrote.
Wecht notes that Shapiro acknowledges the situation is unlikely to be resolved by the end of the month; the court is, however, expected to take an expedited path to a resolution. Other charges filed by Shapiro—including accusations that UPMC is failing to meet its charitable requirements—are also pending before the Commonwealth Court.
UPMC and Highmark have been embroiled in a bitter dispute over market share in greater Pittsburgh that came to a head when Highmark acquired what is now Allegheny Health Network to directly challenge UPMC in the provider space.
State officials intervened and devised the soon-to-expire consent decrees, which kept each in the other’s network for five years.
In a statement, Shapiro said the ruling was a “crucial step towards delivering justice” to western Pennsylvanians.
“My office will now make our case in Commonwealth Court on an expedited basis that modification of the end date is not just permitted—but necessary to ensure UPMC fulfills its role as a public charity and isn’t able to shun the very taxpayers whose tax dollars built their business,” he said.
Paul Wood, a spokesman for UPMC, noted in a statement that in neither opinion did the justices argue that the attorney general has free rein to change the consent decree to his liking under current law.
“None of the justices, notably, accepted the [AG’s] position that the modification clause was unlimited, deciding this issue was a matter for Commonwealth Court to resolve after receiving additional evidence,” Wood said. “Importantly, all the justices agreed that it was not necessary for them to extend the termination date of the consent decrees through their extraordinary powers.”