The settlement agreement between Boulder Community Health and UnitedHealthcare on Sept. 11, 2023, has relieved widespread concern among the thousands of affected policyholders who had feared losing affordable coverage. Credit: Jonathan Weiss

A settlement was reached Monday between Boulder Community Health and UnitedHealthcare in a contract dispute that had threatened in-network health care coverage for more than 13,000 Boulder County policyholders.

The multiyear agreement “ensures continued, uninterrupted access to Boulder Community Health’s hospital and its physicians” for those covered by UHC’s employer health insurance plans, Medicare Advantage, group retiree plans and dual special needs plans, said a UHC spokeswoman.

“Our top priority throughout the negotiation was ensuring our members have access to quality, affordable care, and this agreement accomplishes that goal,” she said.

The new contract means “there will be no impact at all to our members, and no care interruption,” she added.

A statement from BCH concurred, noting that “the termination notice has been withdrawn, and in-network coverage for BCH physicians, facilities and services for UHC members will continue uninterrupted. … We value our partnership with UHC and are grateful for this successful outcome.”

Although both sides declined to comment on specific terms of the agreement, BCH also said it believes that the new contract “supports BCH’s ongoing financial sustainability” — one of its main points of contention with UHC. Boulder Community Health said earlier that it had endured systemwide inflation of about 8% yearly for the last four years due to the Covid pandemic and overall inflation.

People with UHC’s traditional Medicare supplement plans never were at risk of losing service because they don’t rely on a network and can visit any doctor who takes Medicare.

UHC said a letter confirming the new contract will be mailed to policyholders in the next week or so.

The settlement relieved widespread concern among the thousands of affected policyholders who had feared losing affordable coverage.

Randy Bender of Lafayette, who is scheduled for knee replacement surgery in November under his Medicare Advantage plan, said he had been “annoyed at the short notice” of the stalemate, which generated “a lot of extra running around” to make just-in-case plans. 

But now, he said, “I am just very happy I don’t have to make changes and can continue to see the doctors I have.” 

Less clear is the impact the new contract will have on premiums. Neither statement addressed the matter, but it’s typical for premiums to increase annually based on inflation, age of the policyholder and other factors.

The two sides had been negotiating since February, according to previous Boulder Reporting Lab discussions with BCH, but talks recently picked up frequency ahead of an Oct. 1 deadline for contract renewal.

Had they not reached an agreement, UHC members would have faced substantial out-of-network fees to use services at Foothills Hospital, BCH-associated primary care physicians and clinics, plus specialty care clinics and  other facilities owned by BCH.

Alternatively, members could have kept in-network pricing by going to other UHC-affiliated hospitals and providers in Boulder County, but that often would have meant changing doctors and driving farther. 

Exceptions would have been made short-term for pregnant women in their second and third trimesters and those already in treatment for serious conditions, such as cancer.

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.

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