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Insurer, hospital chain hammer out agreement

Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Utah and the Utah hospitals of Columbia/HCA have reached a hard-fought agreement allowing Regence members to continue to receive hospital services at Columbia/HCA facilities.

The new agreement, announced Tuesday and effective through 2000, will ensure Regence BlueCross BlueShield members will be able to receive service at Brigham City Community Hospital, Ogden Regional Medical Center, Lakeview Hospital in Bountiful, St. Mark's Hospital in Salt Lake City, Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem and Mountain View Hospital in Payson.The rift between Regence and Columbia/HCA centered around Columbia's claim that Regence had imposed unilateral cuts in reimbursement rates for Columbia hospitals. Columbia threatened to terminate the alliance, a working arrangement dating back to 1942. Regence countered by beefing up its agreement with Intermountain Health Care and sending a letter to its 600,000-plus Utah subscribers informing them that they would have to pay more if they wanted to be treated at a Columbia facility after July 1.

Regence vice president Kevin Bischoff said reimbursement rates had "increased, stayed the same, and in one year decreased," but asserted the rates for Columbia hospitals were created the same as for any other hospital. Talks between the two parties heated up, then stalled. As late as last week, insiders questioned whether an agreement could be reached.

"It appeared as though we had reached an impasse," Bischoff said. "A lot of our customers were unhappy with that."

Columbia spokesperson Jacque Brown said she began receiving calls "almost immediately" after Regence subscribers heard about the split. "We received hundreds of calls from people insured through BlueCross BlueShield saying, 'I want to come to your hospital because I like the care I receive and want to continue receiving that quality of care.' "

So Regence and Columbia came together again, this time hammering out an agreement that satisfies both. Terms of the arrangement were not disclosed, but Bischoff and Brown said Regence subscribers can be assured care at Columbia facilities just as they have in the past.