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State asks UPMC and Highmark to suspend negative ads

| Friday, Sept. 6, 2013, 2:51 p.m.

State officials have told UPMC and Highmark to stop airing negative television ads because they appear to be geared toward consumers' fears and regulators will review their accuracy.

In a letter to the CEOs of the warring health giants, Insurance Commissioner Michael Consedine and Secretary of Health Michael Wolf said the advertisements “appear to be intended to drive consumers to choose their health insurance and health provider based on fear rather than a balanced, factual understanding of their options.”

Neither company took immediate action to comply by pulling ads, spokespeople said.

The letter, dated Thursday, is the first action from a task force Gov. Tom Corbett established last month in response to consumer complaints about the commercials, which focus on the expiration of reimbursement contracts between UPMC and Highmark at the end of 2014.

Without those contracts, Highmark insurance members would lose in-network access to most UPMC hospitals and physicians. Highmark customers still could seek treatment from UPMC, but at more costly out-of-network charges.

Consedine and Wolf instructed UPMC and Highmark to rerun joint advertisements from early 2012, which informed seniors that the contract expirations won't affect their in-network access to UPMC.

“This message is necessary to mitigate a conflicting message issued by Highmark and UPMC that may tend to confuse Medicare beneficiaries,” the letter states.

UPMC spokesman Paul Wood said the hospital network has “tried to get Highmark to reissue a joint Medicare ad, and they have so far refused to do so.”

Highmark, which has about 200,000 Medicare Advantage consumers in the region, won't issue such a statement until UPMC agrees to extend contracts for seniors, which must be renewed each year, until 2020, spokeswoman Kristin Ash said.

The insurer believes that its ads are not negative and don't need to stop, Ash said.

“They focus on the need for the parties to work together to establish a more constructive relationship and on affordable access to care,” she said.

Wood said UPMC is “more than glad to work with the task force to determine what ads are objectionable, misleading, false and should be discontinued.” But, he added, “our ads have been factually correct.”

In their letter, Consedine and Wolf warned that “continued unnecessary and negative advertising and statements by either party will be viewed as an aggravating factor for any potential future action taken by the Commonwealth.”

Highmark, the state's largest insurer and owner of the second-largest hospital network in Western Pennsylvania, wants to renew contracts and has said in its advertising that UPMC plans to close off its hospitals to Highmark members starting in 2015.

UPMC last month accused Highmark in a federal lawsuit of making false claims in the ads, and asked that the commercials be stopped. Highmark has said it would fight the lawsuit.

UPMC's ads have said Highmark will force patients who want to go to UPMC into the Allegheny Health Network, Highmark's hospital system formed this year with the acquisition of West Penn Allegheny Health System.

Corbett's task force, made up of officials from the departments of Insurance and Health, asked UPMC and Highmark to submit copies of advertising and other marketing material for review, Insurance Department spokeswoman Rosanne Placey said.

Alex Nixon is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com.

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