Judge mulls insurer's request to block Mississippi Gov. order

Blue Cross and HMA involved in lengthy dispute over money

The Health Management Associates headquarters at 5811 Pelican Bay Boulevard in Naples on Tuesday, June 25, 2013.

Photo by DAVID ALBERS // Buy this photo

The Health Management Associates headquarters at 5811 Pelican Bay Boulevard in Naples on Tuesday, June 25, 2013.

— A federal judge says he intends to rule on Monday in a dispute between Mississippi's largest health insurer and Gov. Phil Bryant.

U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate heard arguments Friday in a lawsuit Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi filed to try to block an executive order that Bryant issued Tuesday.

Bryant's order would make Blue Cross resume paying in-network rates at hospitals owned by Health Management Associates.

HMA, based in Naples, Fla., owns 10 hospitals in Mississippi.

Blue Cross says the governor doesn't have the power to dictate terms of a contract between two private companies. It's asking Wingate to issue a temporary restraining order, which would allow the insurer to ignore Bryant's command.

Bryant ordered the hospitals returned to Blue Cross' network by Oct. 29. The governor said that without the hospitals, Blue Cross would have an insufficient network under state law.

Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney opposes Bryant's executive order, saying it illegally usurps his power and the power of the state Department of Insurance. John G. Corlew, an attorney representing Chaney, said in court Friday that voters didn't elect Bryant to do the insurance commissioner's job.

"We have one man saying, 'This is the way it's going to be,'" Corlew said of Bryant.

Assistant Attorney General Harold Pizzetta, who represented the governor, responded: "We're not trumping the commissioner."

The Mississippi Constitution gives the governor, as chief executive officer, the power to make sure all state laws — including insurance laws — are faithfully carried out, Pizzetta said.

Blue Cross and HMA are involved in a lengthy dispute over money.

HMA filed a $13 million lawsuit in June against Blue Cross, saying that the Flowood-based insurance company broke contract terms by underpaying for procedures. Blue Cross has said HMA overcharges. The lawsuit is still pending.

Several days after the lawsuit was filed, Blue Cross gave notice that it was ending its contract with HMA at the end of August. That meant that starting Sept. 1, the HMA hospitals were out-of-network for people with Blue Cross coverage, meaning patients eventually could face higher out-of-pocket expenses. The HMA hospitals have said, however, that they're covering the difference between in-network and out-of-network costs rather than passing those costs on to patients.

Blue Cross said this past Monday that it would start paying in-network rates at four of the 10 HMA hospitals: Gilmore Memorial Regional Medical Center in Amory, Northwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center in Clarksdale, Tri-Lakes Medical Center in Batesville and Woman's Hospital in Flowood. Bryant's executive order, covering the Blue Cross-HMA relationship at all 10 hospitals, came the next day.

David Kaufman, an attorney representing Blue Cross, said in court Friday that HMA has "created a panic with misinformation" by holding rallies, issuing press releases and persuading lawmakers to hold a hearing to make people think patients will lose access to health care because of the contract dispute.

"No one is being denied access to medical care," Kaufman said.

At the hearing in mid-September, a neonatologist said that if HMA hospitals close, there would be too few labor and delivery rooms or surgery rooms to handle the number of births in the Jackson area. She said that could lead to women going through labor or even giving birth in hallways at other hospitals.

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