CLEARWATER — An ongoing dispute between Tampa Bay's biggest hospital group and one of its biggest health insurers has drawn the ire of the region's government and business leaders.
At a news conference Friday, the leaders urged BayCare Health System and UnitedHealthcare to resolve their differences and avoid having policy holders pay more out of pocket for treatment.
Contract talks between the two companies ended late last month without an agreement. The resulting showdown has left nearly half a million people in the bay area, including many government employees, with only limited access to BayCare hospitals.
BayCare says United owes it $11 million in unpaid claims and needs to increase its reimbursement rates, or else its Medicare Advantage customers can't use some of the area's most popular hospitals.
United says BayCare is throwing its weight around to win contract concessions that will only increase costs to consumers.
"Both UnitedHealthcare and BayCare need to take a look at what impact this is going to have on more than 400,000 people in the bay area," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who likened the impasse to the "fiscal cliff" talks going on among congressional leaders in Washington, D.C.
"The impact is real, and it's totally avoidable," Welch said. "Both sides see what's coming, but it's really an act of political gamesmanship."
At Friday's news conference — which was also attended by Pinellas Commissioners Janet Long and Karen Seel, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and several other elected leaders — officials implored the two sides to adhere to a set of principles that include putting aside "purely selfish interests" and exercising corporate responsibility.
With the impasse stretching for nearly two weeks now, the effects are already being felt by thousands of United patients, who are having to pay much more for health care as they seek treatment from out-of-network providers.
They also can no longer use BayCare facilities, including St. Anthony's, St. Joseph's, Morton Plant and Mease hospitals. Patients can still use emergency facilities at those hospitals, which are open to all under federal law.
If the two sides don't come to an agreement soon, Pinellas County leaders say they will have to explore working with other health insurance providers.
"I'm hopeful," Welch said. "It would seem to be the common sense thing to do. I think both organizations can do a lot of damage to their brand."