A group of East Valley residents is fighting to get four local hospitals back.
About 40 people upset about a contract terminated Monday between Banner Health and Arizona Physicians IPA, one of the state's Medicaid plans, met Thursday at an apartment complex in Mesa to plan a grass-roots effort of petition-signing and calls to local leaders.
"We've been told we can't use these big, gorgeous hospitals," organizer Lou Ann Belokas told the crowd. "We need to start right here in our community and start putting pressure on them."
The contract halt means about 300,000 health plan members will not be able to get inpatient medical treatment from Banner facilities in Arizona, except when care is not available from contracted providers.
More than 130 people have signed petitions asking Banner and Arizona Physicians to renegotiate, and for members to be able to switch to another state Medicaid plan that includes Banner facilities, Belokas said. Health plan officials said an adequate number of hospitals — 16 Valleywide — will be available to plan members. But physicians said that in the East Valley, where Banner owns four of the 10 major hospitals — patients will lose nearby medical resources and possibly have their health care compromised.
Dr. Bertram Okorie, who works in the emergency department at Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa, said Arizona Physicians members who need to be admitted after being treated in the emergency room may have to be transported to hospitals contracted with the health plan, which could back up the ER for hours. Last year, Banner Desert's ER saw 8,578 of the plan's members.
"This decision is not going to affect Banner's survival or livelihood, it's going to affect and impact patients who can ill-afford the inconvenience," Okorie said.
The health plan's members, who are low-income, are often the most vulnerable patients. Now they will be sent to contracted hospitals like Tempe St. Luke's and Mesa General, which routinely send patients to Banner Desert because they don't have the right physicians available, Okorie said.
"It just doesn't make any sense," he said. "It's backwards." Dr. Polly Turner, president of the medical staff at Banner Desert, said she sent a letter Wednesday to Gov. Janet Napolitano, also asking that patients be given the chance to switch plans. Many members may have signed up for Arizona Physicians because it included Banner hospitals.
"The unexpected and unexplained termination suggests the possibility (of a) bait-and-switch and that patients are being used as pawns," the letter stated.
Arizona Physicians officials said they terminated the contract with Banner for economic reasons. State officials said they have little authority over the health plan's decision to terminate, except to ensure adequate health services are provided, said Susan Gerard, the governor's health and human services policy adviser.
"It's kind of a 'Trust me,' but legally, we can't force them to contract with Banner," she said.
Dan Green, a Banner spokesman, has said the contract with Arizona Physicians, which was negotiated in October, did not involve any significant rate increases. Green said the health plan exercised its option to terminate the contract with 30 days notice because Arizona Physicians got better rates from Vanguard Health Systems, which owns Paradise Valley Hospital, and IASIS Healthcare, which owns Mesa General and Tempe St. Luke's.
Banner continues to talk with the health plan and Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System to minimize impact on enrollees, he said.
"I don't want to raise any false hopes that we can resolve this," he said.