WASHINGTON — The third-largest investor-owned hospital management chain in the United States said May 19 it will start looking for non-PVC medical supplies as part of an agreement with one of its shareholders and a health-care organization.
The decision by Universal Health Services Inc. was praised by anti-PVC organizations as more evidence of hospitals wanting to move away from vinyl — but vinyl industry officials disagreed and said there are plenty of caveats in UHS's decision.
UHS, which runs 67 facilities and has sales of about $2 billion, will not change its purchasing policy, but will step up efforts for non-PVC alternatives, said Kirk Gorman, UHS chief financial officer.
``In terms of our actual purchasing of products, I don't know that there is any change,'' Gorman said. ``We have agreed to be energetic to educate ourselves about alternatives. ... We will bring this up in conversation with our suppliers.''
UHS of King of Prussia, Pa., is not agreeing to pay a premium for PVC-free products; rather, it will buy PVC-free products only if they are cheaper or perform better and hold costs steady, Gorman said.
The agreement was reached between UHS and Citizens Funds, a Portsmouth, N.H.-based mutual fund that focuses on socially responsible investments. The organization Health Care Without Harm participated with Citizens Funds.
An HCWH official said the UHS decision, coupled with similar moves by other health-care providers, puts more pressure on PVC.
Hospital chain Catholic Healthcare West, Catholic hospital buying group Consorta Inc., and Kaiser Permanente have indicated they want alternatives to PVC. Baxter International Inc. said last month it was exploring alternatives but reaffirmed its commitment to the safety and performance of PVC.
``All of those taken together begin to send a message up the supply chain that hospitals are wanting alternatives,'' said Gary Cohen, co-coordinator of Falls Church, Va.-based HCWH. ``At the early stages of conversations with Baxter, they were saying no one is demanding alternatives. Now you have major players demanding alternatives.''
Gorman said the 67 facilities in their chain have not raised PVC issues with corporate management, but he said they may be talking about it locally.
Mark Sofman, manager of industry affairs for the Vinyl Institute in Washington, said UHS' statement includes limitations, such as, PVC alternatives will be explored if they are ``high-quality and cost-effective health care.''
``In terms of this `signal' being sent up the supply chain, as long as people have all the relevant information up the supply chain, the vinyl industry will take its chances with the marketplace deciding where vinyl goes,'' Sofman said. ``Given that vinyl has four decades of proven safe use in these applications, a drop of rain does not a flood make.''
UHS said it is not sure if PVC is harmful, and said in the agreement that PVC ``may result in damage to the environment.'' HCWH contends that PVC manufacture and disposal contributes dioxin to the environment and that harmful phthalates can leach from PVC into people.
Citizens Funds' general counsel, Joe Keefe said ``it is my firm understanding with the company that UHS is genuinely committed to finding alternatives.''
HCWH and Citizens Funds plan to present alternatives to UHS, and the agreement said the firm will provide a timetable. UHS already uses PVC-free intravenous bags.
Columbia HCA/Healthcare Corp. shareholders will vote on a similar resolution at a May 27 meeting, Cohen said. A similar shareholders resolution was defeated at Abbott Laboratories' annual meeting last month.