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Publicly available records about hospital takeover unsealed

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  1. Court Access
Nearly all the court documents related to a Pennsylvania health insurer’s agreement to take over a hospital network will soon…

Nearly all the court documents related to a Pennsylvania health insurer’s agreement to take over a hospital network will soon be released, after a federal judge in Pittsburgh recently ruled that the claimed “highly confidential” information is publicly available.

U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab last week granted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s motion to unseal documents in West Penn Allegheny Health System, Inc. v. UPMC. In that lawsuit, West Penn Allegheny, which operates five hospitals in the state, alleged that health insurance company Highmark and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center — West Penn Allegheny’s main competitor in Pittsburgh — conspired against other healthcare providers and insurers in the community.

In November, Highmark agreed to invest in and take over West Penn Allegheny, which subsequently dismissed the insurer as a defendant in the antitrust suit.

West Penn Allegheny filed a copy of the agreement and supporting documents under seal, claiming they contained “highly sensitive, confidential information about West Penn Allegheny’s existing business organizations and strategic future planning for the integrated health system.”

Schwab rejected that argument, however, finding “this bald assertion” insufficient to outweigh the common law public right of access to judicial proceedings and documents. When the public has a right of access to judicial documents, courts make sealing decisions by, at the very least, balancing the interests of the parties involved with those of the public and the press.

“No specific harm is alleged with respect to the agreement itself. West Penn Allegheny’s failure to provide specific examples of harm which would ensue upon the disclosure of the affiliation agreement causes this court to deem it a document that should be available to the public,” the judge said in his Dec. 29 order.

Moreover, nearly all of the information in the 516 pages of records related to the takeover already exists in the public domain through the Internet, news conferences, press releases and advertisements by West Penn Allegheny and Highmark and publicly available court filings, the judge said.

“This court cannot justify the continued sealing of a document that is readily available to the public via other sources,” Schwab said, noting, for example, that an overview of Highmark’s strategic vision and information defining the payments it plans to make to West Penn Allegheny are accessible on Highmark’s web site.

Further, West Penn Allegheny’s web site “is replete with” information the hospital network deemed highly confidential, from doctors’ names, specialties and contact information, to financial disclosures and IRS filings, the judge found.

“West Penn Allegheny and Highmark have released more specific financial and other alleged confidential business information in their own websites/advertisements/news releases, and presentations recorded on YouTube, than is contained in the sealed documents,” Schwab said.

A few documents that do in fact contain confidential information — namely, salary, patient and other personal data — will remain sealed, according to the order, which requires West Penn Allegheny to publicly file the remaining documents by tomorrow afternoon.