By Michaela Gibson Morris
A day after BlueCross & BlueShield moved to restore Gilmore Memorial in Amory and three other hospitals to its network, Gov. Phil Bryant issued an executive order restoring all 10 HMA hospitals to the network for 60 days.
“I had hoped the two parties could come to some resolution, but as governor, I cannot sit back and allow Mississippians’ access to care to be threatened in violation of state law,” Bryant said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon.
“It is my hope that a full investigation will ensure that no law has been broken as it relates to a patient’s access to care and a provider’s responsibility under state law.”
BlueCross, the state’s largest health insurance company, and the 10 hospitals owned by Florida-based Health Management Associates have been locked in a dispute over reimbursement rates.
In June, HMA filed suit, charging BlueCross with underpaying them by $18 million. Saying the for-profit system’s charges were out of line, BlueCross terminated the network agreements with the 10 HMA hospitals, located in Amory, Batesville, Biloxi Clarksdale and metro Jackson, effective Sept. 1.
HMA officials commended Bryant for acting.
“The governor’s actions illustrate that all communities matter,” said J. Allen Trya, Gilmore Memorial CEO. “Hospitals and insurance companies have disputes. But the patients and policyholders shouldn’t be pawns in that dispute. All we have ever said to BlueCross is: put us back in network and let’s work behind the scenes with each other to resolve our dispute.”
During the 60-day period, Bryant has directed Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney to investigate if there have been any violations of a 1995 law requiring BlueCross and other insurers to provide their enrollees with “reasonable access to care with minimum inconvenience.” The order will expire seven days after the process is complete. It has no impact on the HMA-BlueCross lawsuit.
In a statement Chaney noted he already had an investigator looking at the issues surrounding the dispute, and his office is studying the details of the governor’s order.
Even before the executive order was formally issued, BlueCross went to federal court to try to block it. In papers filed Friday, BlueCross stated, “The governor’s attempt to act under the color of state authority to dictate the business practices of private parties is an unprecedented act that disregards multiple fundamental rights.” An answer is due from the governor’s office by Nov. 8.
“The matter is now with the Federal Court which will determine the outcome,” said Meredith Virden, BlueCross corporate communications manager. “The court has advised us they will set a hearing date as soon as possible.”
The lawsuit also took personal aim at Bryant, noting he had opposed forcing people to buy health insurance in his opposition to the federal health care overhaul and saying forcing it to contract with HMA for services was a similar situation. It also questioned Bryant’s sincerity in light of his opposition to expanding Medicaid to cover uninsured residents under the overhaul.
“The governor’s sudden interest in access to health care is interesting given that he blocked approximately 300,000 Mississippians from participating in the Medicaid program,” the lawsuit states.
Chaney said his office will continue to work as the federal court considers the governor’s order.
“In the meantime we will continue to do what we have been doing which is to make sure the interests of all parties, especially patients, are protected,” he said.
Bobby Harrison of the Daily Journal and The Associated Press contributed to this story.