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CEOs of Highmark and UPMC disagree on substance of phone call

| Thursday, April 18, 2013, 10:30 a.m.

Icy relations between Pittsburgh health care titans UPMC and Highmark show no sign of thawing.

How bad is it? The two sides can't even agree on the substance of a phone call between Highmark CEO William Winkenwerder and UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff.

Winkenwerder on Thursday said he and Romoff spoke by phone in December and agreed to “get together” to talk about their stalemate over a new contract giving Highmark members access to UPMC hospitals once an agreement ends Dec. 31, 2014.

A meeting with Romoff could take place in the “coming weeks to months,” he said, although no date had been set.

But UPMC spokesman Paul Wood called Winkenwerder's characterization of the call “complete and utter fabrication.” He described the December call as simply one CEO wishing another happy holidays, and nothing more. The two CEOs spoke after Romoff returned a call from Winkenwerder.

UPMC, the largest hospital network in Western Pennsylvania, has no interest in talks on a new contract with Highmark, Wood said. Highmark, the state's largest health insurer, wants the UPMC relationship to be extended. Once the reimbursement contract expires, Highmark's more than 2 million members in Western Pennsylvania won't have in-network access to most of UPMC's 19 hospitals.

The organizations have been at odds since June 2011, when Highmark announced plans to buy West Penn Allegheny Health System and convert itself into an integrated hospital and health insurance system. The battle has included a lawsuit in which Highmark accused UPMC of false advertising and claims that UPMC unfairly denied service to Highmark members who subscribed to a limited network health plan called Community Blue.

The state Insurance Department is reviewing Highmark's $1.1 billion acquisition of financially troubled West Penn Allegheny, which owns five hospitals. Winkenwerder, who spoke to reporters after a meeting of the Pittsburgh Technology Council at a Downtown hotel, said he's “optimistic that there will be a favorable decision” by the department. Highmark has asked for a decision by April 30.

Meanwhile, a letter from a group of state senators called on Gov. Tom Corbett to make Highmark's acquisition of West Penn Allegheny include the condition that Highmark create a transition plan for life after UPMC.

“Requiring a transition plan as part of any approval will give consumers the knowledge and predictability they need to make choices on insurance and medical care,” said the letter, which was signed by Sens. Don White, R-Indiana and chairman of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee; Kim Ward, R-Hempfield; Elder Vogel, R-Butler County, and Robert Robbins, R-Mercer.

“Upon your administration issuing approval of the WPAHS acquisition, the lack of a clear transitional plan will result in a confused public while paralyzing the health insurance marketplace,” the letter said. Neither Corbett nor the Insurance Department had seen the letter as of Thursday, spokespeople said.

Alex Nixon is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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