PeaceHealth, insurers may cut ties

UnitedHealthcare, Regence contracts set to end June 30

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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Thousands of Clark County residents who receive health coverage from Regence or UnitedHealthcare may soon be faced with a tough decision: find a new physician or pay higher out-of-pocket costs.

Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon and UnitedHealthcare have each been negotiating contract renewals with PeaceHealth. This week, both insurers notified their Clark County members that the current contracts will end June 30.

Negotiations will continue over the next few weeks, but if a deal isn't reached, PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center and PeaceHealth Medical Group physicians will be considered out-of-network providers beginning July 1. Receiving care from an out-of-network provider means patients could be responsible for paying a higher portion of the bill, up to the total billed charges, according to the Regence letter to members.

Vancouver resident Nancy Zimmer is one of 19,000 Regence members in Clark County who received a letter this week.

"It's going to impact me greatly if it happens. I don't know where to go," Zimmer said. "It's hard to believe they would do this."

Chastell Ely, a spokeswoman for PeaceHealth, said Thursday that insurance companies are required to send out notices if the terms of a contract haven't been extended or renegotiated within 30 days of the contract expiration date.

However, the notices sent by Regence don't mean the two parties are too far apart to reach a new agreement, she said. "We're continuing to negotiate in good faith," said Ely, adding that PeaceHealth remains "very hopeful" that a resolution will be reached before June 30.

In a written statement, PeaceHealth said, "We trust Regence and UnitedHealthcare will stay at the negotiating table with us until an agreement is reached."

Officials with Regence and PeaceHealth have several meetings scheduled to continue discussions, Regence spokesman Scott Burton said in a written statement.

"This is a difficult situation in that PeaceHealth chose to end its agreements with us at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center and PeaceHealth Medical Group as part of the negotiation," Burton said. "We remain committed to reaching an agreement that will be reasonable to all parties, including our members and customers who can't sustain continued cost increases."

UnitedHealthcare is continuing discussions with PeaceHealth and has extended a good-faith contract offer that, spokeswoman Kristen Hellmer said, provides value and would maintain affordable health care options.

If those agreements aren't reached, however, Clark County residents like Zimmer will be left with tough decisions.

Zimmer, 63, has been with her current physician for more than two years. As she approaches retirement, Zimmer had hoped to maintain consistent health care providers located close to her home. Now, she's considering switching to another insurance plan offered by her union.

"I'm approaching retirement. I need something that's convenient for me and not to have to go a long distance," she said.

If the PeaceHealth contracts do expire, Clark County residents can see other local physicians and hospitals within the Regence and UnitedHealthcare networks.

Regence members can use Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center and visit urgent care centers at Salmon Creek Family Practice, The Vancouver Clinic and Battle Ground Family Medicine. Several hospitals and clinics in Portland are also in-network options for members, according to the Regence letter.

UnitedHealthcare didn't provide specific alternatives, but Hellmer said it is committed to providing a broad network of physicians and hospitals.

"If we are not able to reach an agreement, our members can be assured that other hospitals in our Pacific Northwest networks are able to provide the same quality health care at rates that are more consistent with market trend," Hellmer said in a written statement.

Columbian reporter Aaron Corvin contributed to this story.

Marissa Harshman:360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com