Florida group joins in lawsuit protesting AARP Medicare network cuts

Published Dec. 13, 2013

AARP Medicare plans announced this fall that they would be dropping thousands of Florida doctors from their managed care networks.

But the Florida Medical Association is not letting the matter drop.

This week, it decided to support litigation brewing in Connecticut that is designed to force the AARP plans to carry 2013's doctor roster forward into 2014.

The lawsuit was filed by two Connecticut county medical associations against UnitedHealthcare, the insurance giant that markets managed care plans under the AARP brand.

After the judge last week enjoined UnitedHealthcare from trimming its network, the company appealed to the federal appellate court in New York. The Florida Medical Association and medical associations in six other states filed a "friend of the court" brief to support the Connecticut counties.

If UnitedHealthcare slashes its networks, the brief says, doctors will suffer "reputational damage, consumer confusion and damage to long-standing relationships between the physicians and their patients.''

The medical societies have also alleged that UnitedHealthcare trimmed so many doctors that patients in some areas will be left with inadequate treatment for some conditions.

It's unclear what effect — if any — the Connecticut suit could have on Florida. Rulings by the New York appellate court do not create law here. But several Tampa Bay doctors and their representatives expressed glee this week that somebody, somewhere, was doing something. They are collecting anecdotes to send to the FMA and to Medicare that allege that the network cuts are hurting patients here as well.

"This feels like David vs. Goliath,'' said Anissa Raiford of the Pinellas County Medical Association. "Patients with serious illnesses are already having a life altering experience and on top of that they get a letter saying you need to change insurance companies if you want to continue care here.''

UnitedHealthcare says it reduced its networks because new reimbursement levels and rules coming out of Washington made smaller networks more efficient. Spokesman Terence O'Hara declined Thursday to estimate how many doctors were dropped. But even with the reductions, AARP networks remain among Florida's largest in the Medicare market, with more than 19,000 doctors for 2014.

UnitedHealthcare will continue to tweak its 2014 network and reinstate doctors if coverage appears to become too thin in an area or specialty, O'Hara said.

The network does not involve AARP's Medicare supplement policies, Medicare drug plans or other UnitedHealthcare managed care plans for people not on Medicare. Medicare's open enrollment period ended last week, but it's not yet known how many people may have dropped AARP plans for 2014.