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Houston Methodist and UnitedHealthcare are extending in-network status for physicians through May 31 in response to the ongoing public health crisis stemming from COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

“To ensure our members in Houston can continue their relationships with their physicians during this time, we have extended our agreement with Houston Methodist’s physicians,” Cole Manbeck, a spokesman for UnitedHealthcare, said. 

In a statement sent out to customers, the Houston Methodist Physician Organization wrote, “Our physicians will be able to see our United patients for an extended period. We know this situation has been difficult for you, so we will

continue to fight for our right to be able to choose your provider without further disruptions. We will keep you posted of any new developments. Thank you for trusting Houston Methodist with your care.”

Houston Methodist and UnitedHealth Group, the largest health insurance company nationwide and second largest in Texas, previously were unable to come to an agreement over a contract dispute related to costs. The clock ran out on negotiations Dec. 31. Houston Methodist hospitals and facilities became out-of-network for UnitedHealthcare’s Medicare Advantage and employer-sponsored plans effective Jan. 1, while Methodist’s employed physicians were expected to be out-of-network starting April 1.

“This has been a trying time for everyone in our city and around the world and we are happy that our patients will not have to worry about their health care during this COVID-19 crisis,” Houston Methodist Baytown Hospital Spokesman Rod Evans said. 

While patients will have an additional two months to see their doctors before the agreement expires, the hospitals remain out-of-network. United says it continues to work on a long-term agreement with Houston Methodist. 

“UnitedHealthcare is committed to helping people access health care to the fullest extent possible as our country addresses the COVID-19 national emergency,” the insurer said in a statement. “To ensure our members in Houston can continue their relationships with their physicians during this time, we have extended our agreement with Houston Methodist’s physicians through May 31. We’re also continuing to work with Methodist in an effort to establish a long-term relationship that ensures Houston residents have access to quality, affordable care.”

The two entities have held a long-standing relationship for more than 20 years. Hospital officials said when United terminated the agreement and proposed reduced rates, the terms could not be accepted while still being able to provide the best possible care. Additionally, United instructed its affiliate, Optum Health, which provides coverage for critically ill transplant patients, to not allow new patients to receive transplants and related care at Houston Methodist.

UnitedHealthcare has said it has worked hard to move things forward with Methodist, but little progress has been made. The insurance company says Methodist continues to refuse to address its high costs and instead spends time and money on paying for radio ads and billboards. The company claims Methodist refuses to compromise and is seeking additional guaranteed rate increases in the double digits within the next few years and refers to this as unsustainable.  

The healthcare provider also claims its self-funded customers could save a combined $68 million in health care costs over the past 12 months if their employees had received care at lower-cost, high-quality Houston hospitals rather than going to Houston Methodist facilities. 

 

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