HELENA (AP) — The Montana hospitals that control New West Health Services, including Northern Montana Health Care, have tentatively agreed to transfer insurance coverage for 10,000 employees of five major hospitals to Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana.
Billings Clinic spokesman Jim Duncan tells Lee Newspapers of Montana that some of the hospitals want out of the insurance business so they can focus on upcoming health care changes. Northern Montana Health Care would be included in the changes, as would other New West health care facilities including St. Peter's in Helena, Community Medical Center in Missoula and Bozeman Deaconess.
"We are all assessing how we can best organize ourselves to be ready for the many changes in health care that are now rapidly occurring," Duncan said Wednesday. "These and other factors are causing each of the New West sponsors to look at where they want to focus their efforts."
Northern Montana Health Care, Billings Clinic, St. Peter's, and Community Medical founded New West in 1998, in part as a competitor to Blue Cross. New West insures or manages health benefits for 40,000 Montanans while Blue Cross has 240,000 customers.
Blue Cross spokesman Tim Warner said the company hopes to close the deal soon.
"This is a competitive market. Blue Cross is competing for business," Warner said. "In this case, we are competing for the business of some major hospitals in Montana."
The deal must pass regulatory approval.
State Auditor Monica Lindeen, whose office regulates insurance in Montana, said Wednesday that she would work with the state and federal justice departments to make sure Montanans can still expect quality service after the proposed transfer. Attorney General Steve Bullock said his office will examine the deal to see if it complies with antitrust laws.
All of the hospitals, New West and Blue Cross have been discussing a possible deal for several months, and the hospitals signed a letter of intent last week.
If the hospital deal goes through, New West would then consider transferring the rest of its commercial health business to another, yet-to-be-determined insurer, Lee Newspapers reported.
Warner declined to say if Blue Cross plans to buy additional New West business.
If the second transfer goes through, New West would have 9,500 customers enrolled in Medicare Advantage, a private health plan that receives part of its premiums from the Medicare program and must offer a benefit package at least as good as Medicare's.
It's unclear how the proposed changes will affect New West customers in terms of price or health coverage or what will happen with New West's more than 100 employees.