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Thousands in limbo over health care dispute
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Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala, left, joined at the podium by St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster, answers questions during a Dec. 7 press conference about the ongoing contract dispute between United Healthcare Services Inc. and BayCare Health Systems.
CLEARWATER – Pinellas County called a press conference Friday morning to talk about the ongoing contract dispute between United Healthcare Services Inc. and BayCare Health Systems.

Pinellas County Commission Chair John Morroni said the two entities should “be good citizens and come together to resolve their differences.”

United Healthcare and BayCare were unable to resolve differences and their contract expired Nov. 26. Now persons with insurance through United must pay higher out-of-network costs to continue to use doctors and facilities in the BayCare system.

“As United Healthcare customers, we share the same concerns about the withdrawal of BayCare Health System from the network and the impact it has on our employees and the community,” Morroni said. “Many thousands of people are experiencing a disruption in their health care coverage and face an uncertain economic future in their health care costs. This is personal and extremely difficult for our impacted employees and their families.”

Morroni asked that the two sides “exercise corporate responsibility and good stewardship, put aside all purely selfish interests, end polarization and intransigence and come together in good faith to resolve differences in the public interest.”

Morroni said Pinellas County wasn’t taking sides in the dispute.

“There’s not a bad guy,” he said. “They have to work together. It’s all about the money.”

County Administrator Bob LaSala said the county’s 8,000 employees and their dependents were being forced to either use different facilities and doctors or pay higher out-of-network charges. Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the situation was the same for his 6,000-plus employees, dependents and retirees. The city of Largo, St. Petersburg and Tampa also are experiencing the same issue, as are private employers, such as Tech Data.

“Tens of thousands are affected,” LaSala said.

Not only are employees paying higher costs for health care, but the employers as well.

“This is not a public health crisis,” he said, as people insured by United can see other doctors and use other facilities. He said it was psychological as well as financial.

“People are very much connected to their doctors,” he said.

Gualtieri said the sheriff’s health plan was separate from the county’s even though both use the same insurance provider. He said the dispute was having “substantial consequences for many people” and his office was actively exploring options and looking at different networks.

“We want them to fix it. Get it right,” he said.

He said if the two couldn’t reach terms, providing health care for his employees would cost an extra $2 million.

“That would be a huge impact on us,” he said.

He said it was understandable that employees would want to use what are now out-of-network services to maintain continuity of care. He said the sheriff’s office would likely make a decision on the matter the first part of next week. He said the decision could be to cancel the contract, but he doesn’t want to take any action that would make the problem worse.

“This is costing about $400,000 a month. That’s taxpayer money. This needs to get resolved,” he said.

LaSala said the county didn’t know enough about the situation to blame one over the other. He was speaking in response to repeated questions from the media as to who was most responsible for the situation.

“We’re dissatisfied with both parties,” he said.

He added the United Healthcare was the county’s agent in the matter and “we expect them to work in good faith.”

“They’re very sophisticated organizations with talented people. We thought they would have come to a conclusion a longtime ago,” he said.

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said his employees also were impacted by the dispute and that the city had no choice but to pass increased costs of healthcare on to taxpayers.

He called for pressure from taxpayers to help resolve the matter quickly.

“There’s a lot of decisions to make, and we’re exploring all options,” he said.

United Healthcare and BayCare were invited to the press conference but did not attend.
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