The contract dispute between Boulder Community Health and UnitedHealthcare has left many UHC customers concerned about the fate of their long-standing medical relationships, scheduled surgeries, and more, leading to widespread alarm and confusion. Credit: Red Herring

Update on Aug. 31, 2023: A previous version of this story said about 18,000 BCH patients insured by UHC would be affected if an agreement is not made by Oct. 1. That number is now about 13,000. After publishing, BCH said that one plan, PERA, would no longer be affected. PERA represents about 5,000 members.

Some 13,000 Boulder Community Health patients insured by UnitedHealthcare will be scrambling for new doctors and medical facilities come Oct. 1, unless the disputing sides agree on a new contract by then.

Policies won’t be canceled, but failing to agree would leave affected members paying hefty out-of-network charges for all BCH care, according to spokespeople for each side.

That would include not only Foothills Hospital, primary care physicians and clinics, but also specialty care clinics and BCH-owned facilities — 43 separate entities. (Find the the full list at the bottom here.)

Impacted are policyholders for seven UHC Medicare Advantage plans, several dozen employer-sponsored commercial plans, plus group retiree plans and dual special needs plans (an uncommon Medicaid/Medicare combination). (See the list of affected policyholders here, or at the bottom of this story.)

UHC’s traditional Medicare Supplement plans are not affected, said a UHC spokeswoman. 

The contract dispute and shifting details are causing widespread alarm and confusion among UHC customers who worry about what could happen to longstanding medical relationships, scheduled surgeries and ongoing therapies. One large insured group, PERA, for instance, was removed this week from the list of those affected.

“We’re all under red alert,” said Elaine Eichel, a retired Boulder Valley School District teacher insured under a UHC Medicare Advantage plan for Colorado PERA, which provides benefits for retired public sector employees. “Do we all have to look for other hospitals, surgeons and primary care physicians? The older we get, the harder it is to deal with this.”

The parties noted that they plan to continue short-term in-network treatment for pregnant women in their second and third trimesters and those now in treatment for serious conditions, such as cancer.

“We have a month yet, and we are in active negotiations,” said the UHC spokeswoman. “If we can’t agree, those that are in the middle of [that serious] care will be able to continue” for a period of time that would be set individually. She advised policyholders to call the phone number on the back of their insurance cards to discuss individual concerns.

The stalemate is due to soaring medical costs related to the Covid pandemic — things like hospitalizations, increased protective gear and staff overtime — combined with rapid increases in the costs of labor, supplies and other expenses. These factors are making it difficult to achieve price stability and predictability, the sides agreed.

“The challenge for both sides in negotiations is predicting inflation,” Bill Munson, BCH’s chief financial officer, told Boulder Reporting Lab. He added that BCH has signed new contracts this year with the other major local insurance players, including Aetna, Humana, Cigna and Anthem Blue Cross.

However, each side said that while it is seeking only fair and competitive rates, the other side is not doing the same. Negotiations began back in February.

Munson said that increases in systemwide expenses locally, as well as nationally, have rocketed about 8% annually in each of the last four years. While Munson said BCH isn’t looking to recoup that full amount, UHC is offering only about half.

“That’s simply not enough to offset the financial impact of inflation. We cannot remain financially stable” without a sizable increase, he said.

“The situation is very similar to what any of us experiences in our personal budget. If I make less money, I have to make up for it somewhere. It puts the hospital in a place where we have to make cuts, hire fewer people, offer less services,” Munson said. “We are trying hard to find offsets, and we’ve made progress, but we can never declare victory.”

United Healthcare, however, said it is “offering market-competitive rate increases that will ensure BCH continues to be fairly compensated. … We remain fully committed to good-faith negotiation and urge BCH to work with us to reach an agreement that is affordable for families and customers in Colorado.”

The insurer said its responsibility is providing policyholders with access to quality healthcare while containing rapidly rising health care costs, because high increases strain the budgets of retirees and employer group customers.

According to UHC, BCH’s proposed rate increases would drive up premiums and out-of-pocket costs for members. They would also raise costs for businesses, in turn affecting companies’ ability to offer quality healthcare to their employees, UHC said.

Donna Sichko of Boulder, who holds an Advantage plan, is among the many angry at both sides. “Five to six weeks’ notice is not reasonable to make other plans. I have seven doctors and six are probably in this. What am I going to do in October” if a contract isn’t worked out, she asked. “I just had cataract surgery — what if I have complications?”

Munson is “cautiously optimistic” a new three-year contract will be reached in time because “both strongly want to continue partnering. We are committed to meet at least weekly.” 

The UHC spokeswoman told Boulder Reporting Lab that she is “extremely hopeful. We are fully committed. We are going to stay at the table for as long as it takes.”

But should negotiations fail, the spokeswoman emphasized that UHC has an “ample network” of other hospitals and their affiliates in Boulder County where BCH customers can still receive in-network coverage and services.

“There shouldn’t be new out-of-network costs,” she said, but acknowledged that customers might have to change doctors when switching network providers.

Other area UHC network hospitals include: Advent Health Avista; Good Samaritan Medical Center; UCHealth Broomfield; Centura Longmont United; and Longs Peak Hospital.

But “nobody likes change,” remarked Jacki Nelson, a Boulder Medicare Advantage policyholder who has been part of the BCH network for 10 years. “It’s very frustrating. BCH is just 10 minutes away. I won’t be happy if I have to go out to Lafayette. As we age, it gets less appealing to drive all over, especially in winter.”

The three women are hoping for a contract settlement, but are frustrated that they may spend September doctor-shopping only to find that it was unnecessary if a new contract is signed. 

If talks do fall through, however, they are preparing in different ways. Eichel said she’s still banking on an agreement coming through so will wait until October to do anything. Sichko plans to find a Medicare insurance counselor to work through alternatives, and Nelson is hoping her doctors are on another Advantage plan she’s considering.

“It will all be a lot of work,” Nelson said.

Clarification: An earlier version of the spreadsheet listing plans affected included United Medicare Advantage PPO. BCH removed this plan from its list, after our publication deadline, a company representative said. It has been removed from the spreadsheet above and a sentence has been added to the story to reflect the change.

Sally Bell is a former major city newspaper reporter with many years of experience, who in retirement now freelances occasionally because she misses it. She has lived in Boulder for more than 20 years.

Join the Conversation


  1. UHC in-network options, if negotiations fail, are all outside city of Boulder limits. This alone should make negotiations a legal obligation for both companies. Also, it isn’t about not liking change. It is about providing assessable health care and keeping continuous care with doctors, which has been shown in studies to lower risk of death among other benefits. The stress this has caused the community, who is powerless in this negotiation, is unacceptable.

  2. My company’s United Healthcare representative has indicated that we will be charged out of network fees for exams, procedures, etc at BCH facilities starting September 1, not October 1 as the story states.

    1. UnitedHealthcare told us repeatedly the contract goes out of network Oct. 1, not before. Your rep seems to have incorrect information. — BRL editors

  3. My husband just had a pacemaker implant & has not even had a follow up appt yet. His appt is scheduled for Oct. we would really hate to have to change doctors “midstream”.
    We love our cardiac team.

  4. Not surprised to see this from UHC. My current employer is the only time I’ve been covered by UHC and they are by far the worst insurance company I’ve ever dealt with. Hopefully my company with change insurance companies soon. I definitely would avoid a new position with a company that used UHC.

  5. Can anyone clarify the comment in the article about PERA being removed from the list (assuming the list is of affected insurance plans)?
    I spoke to PERA staff yesterday about this issue and they gave no indication that the issue was settled, one way or another.

    1. A BCH representative reached out, after our story was published, to clarify that “PERA plans are not impacted,” and that “we have removed this from our list.” We updated our list to reflect that change, which seems very recent. — BRL editors

  6. As a former Federal healthcare lobbyist who represented hospitals for many years and currently a UHC Medicare Advantage member living in Boulder, I offer two observations:

    1. Those potentially impacted by this should contact Congressman Joe Neguse, and their two US Senators and urge them to work with HHS/CMS, which administers the Medicare program, to look into issuing regulations to prevent disruptions of local medical care contracts as could potentially happen here by aligning any change in coverage with annual beneficiary renewal dates. So if a provider and insurer did not come to terms, Medicare beneficiaries could, in a timely fashion, choose another insurer who has a contract with a local provider. In other words, an insurer must provide coverage through the year and their contract should align with the annual term of insurance under Medicare’s renewal process and timeline, thus allowing Medicare beneficiaries to switch during the open enrollment period to an insurer who has a contract with a local provider. While potential new regulations would not impact the current negotiations, it would ease situations like this in the future.

    2. BCH frequently touts its “independent” status. However, here is a situation where size matters. If BCH were part of a larger hospital system, they would have more clout and make it harder for UHC and other insurers, not to have a contract with them. Hospital systems also have more access to capital and are able to spread financial difficulties over more entities. Don’t misunderstand me, it is fine BCH is independent, but being so has its advantages and disadvantages. Also important to note, while hospital stays are expensive, BCH is a not for profit entity (no stock shareholders), while UHC is a large for profit entity-the largest health insurer in the country.

    I’m optimistic they will come to mutually beneficial terms. If they don’t, BCH will lose significant revenue and UHC will lose a strategically located provider. And many of us will have to find new providers and drive further for our healthcare at least until the next open enrollment period.

  7. When choosing a Medicare plan, I’m not sure people understand the difference between traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage. There are no insurance companies involved in traditional Medicare. All you have to do is find a Medicare provider. You can buy a supplement (through an insurance company) to cover the copays Medicare doesn’t pay, but your providers only need to take Medicare. They don’t have to be on any insurance provider list. Medicare Advantage plans are run by insurance companies, so your healthcare dollars also go toward profits, advertising, CEO salaries, etc. You have to find a provider on that insurance provider list. (More and more local providers, particularly psychiatrists and mental health providers, seem to be getting off insurance lists.) And, as in this dispute between United Healthcare and Boulder Community Health, you’re in jeopardy when the insurance company doesn’t agree with your providers about the cost of services. I think these plans should more accurately be called Medicare Disadvantage plans. I want people to be forewarned when open enrollment time rolls around.

  8. the individual who pointed out that the failure to renew the contract between bch and united healthcare is not about “not liking chance.” that remark is a cop-out and an insult especially if it is directed to the senior population who tend to be the population developing health problems from day to day. here are two wealthy corporations fighting about their bottom lines which in both cases is substantial. thousands of client/patient people that is human beings of all ages who are sick some desperately ill who would be sacrificed without the blink of an eye from either of these business. there’s a story also circulating that kaiser permanete is facing an employee strike at the end of september 2023 same as bch/united healthcare. is this coincidental? some of my friends who are at the mercy of bch/uh have looked at kaiser as a possible alternative only to find this strike rumor circulating and putting kaiser outside consideration. the stress and tension and worry among the affected folks some of whom have family in the bch owned hospital here in boulder some of them children in a desperate crisis emotionally and maybe financially. money which both of these squabbling outfits are really fighting about and which both of them have plenty of seems to be more important than the well being of the patients who have the misfortune to have trusted bch and/or united healthcare with their lives. ellen shriver boulder colorado

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