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PITTSBURGH -- Concerned over rising health care costs and declining quality, the Pittsburgh Business Group on Health is calling for area employers to unite and raise awareness of those issues.

"We see quality-of-care issues becoming secondary concerns for key health care decision makers," Marcella Ashley, vp of the 36-employer coalition, said in a prepared statement, the coalition's first on this issue. "Filling hospital beds, winning bigger market share and making more money seem to come first," the statement added.

Members of the PBGH represent 300,000 covered lives.

The coalition plans to conduct meetings with members of the health care community in the Pittsburgh area to discuss its concerns. The next meeting, to include representatives from employers, health plans and providers, is slated for September, where the issues "will be hopefully discussed in depth," said M. Christine Whipple, the PBGH's executive director.

The coalition's goal, according to Ms. Whipple, is to get quality health care at reasonable prices. She said the provider community's response to the PBGH's call has been mixed.

Included on the PBGH's agenda are discussions of spending by hospitals to expand facilities -- particularly by University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Health System -- and the proliferation of medical centers designed for high-end treatment such as heart surgery.

Dr. Kenneth Melani, executive vp of Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield in Pittsburgh, agrees that the expansion by UPMC, as well as its purchase of other area hospitals, is an issue of concern. "The question is, what are they constructing and what will the ultimate outcome be?" he said.

Dr. Melani views the coalition's action as working to maintain the high quality of care offered by UPMC as it grows and dominates medical care in the Pittsburgh region.

UPMC, however, defends its expansion as adding capacity into areas where growth is needed while also looking to cut unnecessary facilities, said Patricia Liebman, chief executive officer for UPMC Health Plan. She also said that buying local community hospitals brings local input into their system.

"That's the best way for health care to be delivered," she said.

She said UPMC plans to work with employers, including the PBGH, to address their concerns, which she says are understandable, as UPMC controls about 40% of hospital beds in the Pittsburgh area, while Highmark controls about 70% of the managed care market.