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Regulators outline liquidation plan for Universal Health Care

ST. PETERSBURG — Bob Buchanan, a 77-year-old retiree in New Port Richey, got a jolt when his favorite primary-care physician said he would no longer honor his Universal Health Care coverage.

Likewise, Universal member Joan Diamond of Apollo Beach worries about who will cover her when she goes in for eye surgery.

"I'm in my 80s, and stuff like this really throws me for a loop," she said.

Their saga is quickly coming to a close.

Florida regulators on Friday unveiled their fast-track plan to liquidate Universal Health Care Group by the end of the month, dispatching its 140,000 members to other health plans and putting hundreds of Universal employees out of work. As of earlier this year, Universal had nearly 1,000 employees, most of them at its St. Petersburg headquarters.

Two related Universal companies are slated to automatically go into liquidation at 12:01 a.m. April 1: Universal Health Care Insurance, which has about 37,500 Medicare policyholders, and Universal Health Care Inc., an HMO with about 60,000 Medicaid members and 40,000 Medicare members.

Separately, the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration said it is reassigning the approximately 57,000 Medicaid recipients who are enrolled in Universal to other health plans.

"The agency has made every effort to ensure that recipients will be assigned to a plan that will allow them to have the same primary-care physician," AHCA Secretary Elizabeth Dudek said in a statement.

Over the next week, Medicare and Medicaid members who were in either of the two plans will receive letters explaining their options from either AHCA or the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The state launched a formal investigation into Universal's finances in August, and on Feb. 4 filed suit to take over the insurer, which it had deemed virtually insolvent at the time. State investigators accused Universal executives of a broad pattern of financial mismanagement, including fraud and diversion of funds.

Since then, Universal's status has been in flux as to whether it would be sold or liquidated. Founder and CEO A.K. Desai has maintained control of Universal, albeit losing a stream of both employees and health care providers willing to keep Universal in their network.

Thursday's ruling by a 2nd Circuit Court judge to place Universal into receivership ceded control to the Florida Department of Financial Services.

Buchanan, the New Port Richey Universal member, says he's getting tired of waiting for the state to act and might take matters into his own hands.

"I'm just going to go to Humana," he said, "and I'm done with it."

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8242.

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