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Corbett scolds UPMC, Highmark

| Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013, 11:45 p.m.

Gov. Tom Corbett waded into the mudslinging campaigns by UPMC and Highmark on Wednesday, calling for the warring health care giants to tone down their negative television ads and stop confusing Western Pennsylvania patients.

Corbett, a Republican who last year negotiated a contract extension between UPMC and Highmark that will expire in about 16 months, said the ads were “causing confusion and great concern among consumers who use Highmark insurance products and UPMC hospitals and providers.”

Highmark, the state's largest health insurer, and UPMC, the biggest hospital system in Western Pennsylvania, have been at odds since Highmark disclosed plans to build a competing hospital system. The airwaves have become increasingly saturated with biting ads since Highmark received approval in April to get into the hospital business.

The ads focus on whether Highmark plan members will have access to UPMC doctors and hospitals once the contract expires and which of the two companies is looking out for patients' best interests and can provide them with the best care.

“These companies need to set aside personal opinions and agendas and work toward the common good of the shared community in which they are both important fixtures,” Corbett said in a statement.

Michael Consedine, the state insurance commissioner and a Corbett appointee, said the administration has been getting more complaints from citizens, businesses and local leaders about the ads, which have sparked a federal lawsuit by UPMC.

Consedine and other administration officials have set up a task force to monitor UPMC and Highmark advertising, and other communications to ensure they are being “truthful, accurate and complete,” Consedine said.

But Corbett's statement should not be interpreted as the governor calling for Highmark and UPMC to restart contract negotiations, he said.

“Right now, it's just an effort to encourage the parties to put aside their disagreements ... and focus on what's best for the community,” he said.

UPMC spokesman Paul Wood said the governor's statement was an endorsement of the stance of Western Pennsylvania's largest hospital network — that an end to its contract with Highmark on Dec. 31, 2014, will promote competition and lead to higher quality and lower cost health care.

“UPMC looks forward to working with the governor's joint task force to ensure that consumers are properly informed and protected as we transition to the new health care landscape developing in Western Pennsylvania,” Wood said.

Highmark spokesman Aaron Billger said it supports health care competition. But, he added, in a competitive marketplace, “individuals and families should have choice in selecting their hospital or physician and that consumers and patients should have affordable access to community health care assets, regardless of their insurance card.”

UPMC has refused to negotiate a new contract that gives Highmark customers in-network access to UPMC hospitals because Highmark's system of hospitals, Allegheny Health Network, is a direct competitor. It has said Highmark's insurance division would use a new contract to siphon patients away from UPMC and to its own hospitals.

Highmark is calling for contract renewal, arguing that UPMC's hospitals are community assets that should be open to all patients.

On Aug. 5, UPMC accused Highmark in a federal lawsuit of running commercials that make false claims that its hospitals won't admit the insurer's customers. It asked that the commercials be stopped.

Highmark has said it would fight the lawsuit.

This is not Corbett's first intervention in the fight. In May 2012, the governor announced that UPMC and Highmark had agreed to extend the contract to the end of 2014. It had been set to expire in June this year, threatening to leave Highmark members without in-network access to UPMC facilities, but Corbett brought the two parties together with a mediator, and they managed a compromise.

The nonprofit organizations were two of the Pittsburgh media market's largest advertisers even before the latest air war, said Cedric Thomas, general sales manager at WPXI.

“These two spend aggressively,” Thomas said. “They have stepped it up a little bit, but they're major advertisers.”

Highmark spent more than $500,000 on ads this year, according to public records that the Federal Communications Commission requires television stations to keep. UPMC spent about $425,000, according to the files.

UPMC estimates that's enough to get its ads in front of 99 percent of the viewing market 11 times a week, Wood said.

He declined to comment specifically on the amount of money UPMC spent on the Highmark campaign but said the health care giant typically spends about $50 million a year in all of its marketing and advertising. That includes billboards, online ads, brochures and other materials from UPMC and its insurance arm, UPMC Health Plan.

Consedine said he and other administration officials have been successful in convincing UPMC and Highmark to tone down their rhetoric. Several weeks ago, the two sides agreed to use the same talking points when discussing a controversy over Highmark's CommunityBlue insurance plans, which exclude UPMC hospitals as in-network providers.

Highmark had complained that UPMC was refusing to treat Highmark CommunityBlue members, even if they offered to pay higher out-of-network rates or cash. UPMC countered that it was not allowed to accept cash or charge out-of-network rates under terms of the governor's mediated agreement.

Consedine said UPMC and Highmark agreed to communicate to CommunityBlue members that “most UPMC hospitals and physicians are not included in the CommunityBlue network, with some exceptions,” according to the talking points. The exceptions include emergency services, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, and some UPMC cancer services.

Alex Nixon and Mike Wereschagin are Trib Total Media staff writers. Staff writer Luis Fábregas contributed to this report. Nixon can be reached at 412-320-7928 or anixon@tribweb.com. Wereschagin can be reached at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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