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Seniors needlessly scared?

| Friday, Aug. 2, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

The whining continues. As if health insurers have the luxury of throwing away precious premium dollars, the battle of TV ads escalated this week when Highmark Inc. began airing spots attacking rival UPMC.

The ads are a hot topic on social media and at cocktail parties that doctors and health care executives attend. Even Pirates fans are getting a dose of commercials while watching the red-hot Buccos.

I wrote about UPMC's ads last week and received so many emails and voicemails that I feel obligated to address Highmark's ads. One thing on which many readers agree with me: The ads are a ridiculous waste of money.

One Highmark ad shows a young man standing before images of the UPMC ad, in which an overly dramatic woman complains about being shut out of UPMC Passavant. (An observant reader pointed out that the UPMC ad, which says it takes place in January 2015, shows trees with green leaves outside the woman's kitchen window. Whaaat? No winter in Pittsburgh?)

“What right does a charitable, tax-exempt hospital built with our tax dollars, donations and grants have to tell any of us we're not allowed to go there?” the man in the Highmark ad asks viewers.

The angry young man has a point. Nonprofit UPMC has no place shutting people out of anything they own. But when it's all said and done, you still will be allowed to go there. Even if you have Highmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield come December 2014, when their contracts expire, you can go to UPMC.

The difference is it will be considered an out-of-network transaction. Yes, it's more money out of your pocket, but it's not like you'll be shown the door while you're having a heart attack. If you want to pay less, there are plenty of other insurers in the Pittsburgh area that will get you to UPMC.

A second Highmark ad puzzles me. It takes place in a diner, the same place that UPMC's creative types picked for an ad. Clearly, Highmark can use a more imaginative ad agency.

What's confusing about the ad (if you can forget the big plate of scrambled eggs and bacon on the counter) is the use of senior citizens to pick on UPMC. The seniors, all men, bellyache that UPMC fears competition. They throw around predictable words such as “monopoly” and “community asset.”

Here's the problem: If you recall, Highmark and UPMC in December 2011 issued a joint statement specifically addressing access to UPMC by Medicare patients. Highmark covers about 200,000 such consumers through its Medicare Advantage plan. Their in-network access to UPMC will not be affected, both organizations said then.

If that's the case, doesn't the use of seniors in the ad give the impression that they ought to worry? Did Highmark throw the agreement out the window? All a Highmark spokeswoman could tell me was that seniors need not worry in 2014. What happens after that isn't decided, she said.

The mixed TV messages prompted a call from a nice lady who wouldn't give her name but told me many seniors living in her high-rise are not sure what's going to happen to them after 2014.

“If you find out the answer, we'll put it up on the bulletin board at the high-rise,” she promised.

I'd love to give this lady an answer (and get my name on the high-rise bulletin board). If only the area's two big health care providers would provide facts — not ads meant to scare our most vulnerable citizens.

Luis Fábregas is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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