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Ad battle rages between health care giants UPMC, Highmark

| Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

It's business as usual in the public battle between UPMC and Highmark two weeks after state officials told the health giants to tone down their advertising and issue a joint statement addressing concerns of seniors.

The biting television commercials continue to saturate the airwaves, the two sides are not talking about common ads, and they continue to take swipes at each other — including on Thursday when Highmark held a news conference over the issue and UPMC responded with a sharp statement.

A task force formed by Gov. Tom Corbett to make sure that consumers were not being misled by the ad campaigns appeared to backpedal from a letter it sent to the companies' chief executives. The letter asked them to “discontinue any such negative attack advertisements” until the task force could review the ads.

On Thursday, however, a spokeswoman for the task force, made up of regulators from the insurance and health departments, said it “continues to look at all their advertisements,” but the companies had not been told “to stop running the ads.”

“Rather, the task force requested that the parties re-evaluate the use of negative tone,” said the spokeswoman, Melissa Fox.

In the Sept. 5 letter, the task force also stated that UPMC and Highmark were expected to rerun a joint advertisement from early 2012 informing Medicare recipients that their in-network access to UPMC doctors and hospitals will not change when commercial contracts between the insurer and hospital system expire at the end of 2014.

While UPMC has run its own version of the ad in print and on television, no joint commercial has aired. Highmark also is running its own ads telling Medicare recipients that they won't be affected by the contract dispute.

Fox declined to comment on the joint statement.

“Ultimately, the goal here is to help consumers understand exactly what is happening in Western Pa.,” she said.

The task force expects to post online in the near future a list of frequently asked questions on what the end of reimbursement contracts between Highmark and UPMC mean for consumers, she said.

The task force this week asked UPMC and Highmark to issue a second joint advertisement, this time addressing concerns that patients covered by the Children's Health Insurance Program would not lose in-network access to UPMC.

Highmark won't agree to a joint ad on CHIP until UPMC agrees to a long-term contract covering the 35,000 children enrolled in Highmark's CHIP program, spokesman Aaron Billger said.

“We're willing to talk to them just about CHIP kids,” he said. “They're saying that CHIP kids (won't be affected), but contractually, they won't commit.”

Highmark has a similar position on Medicare, previously stating that UPMC must commit to renewing those contracts through 2020 before Highmark will run any joint advertising.

A UPMC newspaper advertisement that tells families with CHIP coverage they won't lose in-network access to its hospitals and doctors will begin running on Friday, spokesman Paul Wood said.

“Highmark again refused to do an ad on CHIP,” he said.

Both health care companies have said they don't believe their commercials are negative, misleading or false.

Corbett created the task force in response to complaints from Western Pennsylvanians.

UPMC and Highmark have been running ads as competition for patients and insurance customers heats up ahead of the Dec. 31, 2014, expiration of reimbursement contracts that give Highmark members less costly in-network access to UPMC.

UPMC, which won't renew the contracts because Highmark runs a competing hospital system, is trying to persuade Highmark's members to switch insurers. Highmark accuses UPMC of being a monopoly and cutting off access to patients.

At a press conference on Thursday at Allegheny General Hospital in the North Side, executives from Highmark's Allegheny Health Network called for state lawmakers to step in with a law that requires large hospital systems to accept contracts with any “willing” insurance company.

“The hospitals of this region are true community assets,” said Duke Rupert, CEO of West Penn Hospital in Bloomfield. “Our elected leaders should take action.”

Wood, in an emailed statement to reporters, called any such legislation “coercive.”

“Such a contract would instantly extinguish insurance competition and provider competition and restore the double-digit premium increases which have plagued this community,” he 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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