Judge blocks UnitedHealthcare Medicare Advantage doctor cuts

A federal judge has temporarily blocked UnitedHealthcare’s move to terminate Connecticut physicians from its Medicare Advantage network.

U.S. District Judge Stefan R. Underhill granted a preliminary injunction requested by the Fairfield County Medical Association and the Hartford County Medical Association. The two medical groups took legal action after UnitedHealthcare notified about 2,200 doctors that they would be dropped from its Medicare Advantage network as of Feb. 1.

UnitedHealthcare said in a statement Friday that it intends to appeal the ruling. The company has about 58,000 Medicare Advantage members in Connecticut and is the largest private Medicare insurer in the state.

The open enrollment period for Medicare beneficiaries to select a Medicare Advantage plan ends Saturday.

UnitedHealthcare’s move to reduce its physician network drew intense criticism from medical groups and from state officials. They argued that the network changes would disrupt longstanding doctor-patient relationships and could make it harder for seniors, particularly those with limited mobility, to get care.

The company said it was focused on offering access to doctors that provide quality, affordable care, and cited “severe government funding cuts” to the Medicare Advantage program.

Underhill’s order prohibits UnitedHealthcare from terminating doctors in the two county medical associations from its Medicare Advantage networks. The company is also barred from notifying Medicare Advantage customers that the providers will be dropped from the network as of Feb. 1, and cannot omit the affected doctors from its 2014 Medicare Advantage directories.

In its statement, UnitedHealthcare said the ruling would “create unnecessary and harmful confusion and disruption to Medicare beneficiaries in Connecticut.”

“We continue to have a broad network of doctors that is designed to encourage higher quality, affordable health care coverage,” the statement said. “We know that these changes can be concerning for some doctors and customers, and supporting our customers is our highest priority.”

Critics of the company’s move praised Underhill’s ruling.

Attorney General George Jepsen urged the company to accept Underhill’s decision and warned that not doing so would compound confusion already caused to patients. “This decision confirms my view that these terminations – unprecedented in scope – offend public policy and threaten irreparable harm to patients whose relationships with their doctors are at risk of disruption,” he said in a statement. “United’s lack of transparency for both physicians and patients has been of great concern.”

Ruling (back to story)