AARP Has Received Complaints About UnitedHealthcare Doctor Network, Defers To Insurer

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UnitedHealthcare’s Medicare Advantage plans carry the AARP brand, and the advocacy organization has had some complaints since news broke last week that the insurer is cutting its physician network next year for those health plans in Connecticut.

“To date, AARP has heard from a small number [of] our members regarding this decision,” AARP spokesman David L. Allen wrote in an e-mail to The Courant.

In 2007, AARP entered into an agreement with UnitedHealthcare to market AARP-branded Medicare Advantage plans “with the objective of offering our members high-value choices,” Allen said.

Last week, UnitedHealthcare came under fire from doctor associations and Connecticut’s congressional delegation after the insurer notified doctors they would be cut from its Medicare Advantage physician network next year.

The Fairfield County Medical Association has said 810 primary care physicians and 1,440 specialists are eliminated from the network in Connecticut. UnitedHealthcare declined to say how many doctors have been cut, but the insurer said its network is adequate with more than 1,500 primary care physicians and more than 4,000 specialists in Connecticut.

The decision raises a question of whether AARP’s allegiance is with the insurer, or with its members: people 50 and older for whom the organization is an advocate.

“No organization has fought harder than AARP to make sure that people in Medicare have access to the health care services they need,” Allen wrote via e-mail. “From our efforts to stabilize Medicare pay for doctors — the so-called ‘doc fix’ — to our support for the ACA [Affordable Care Act] and its provisions that help address the healthcare workforce crisis in an aging America, AARP has been a leader in ensuring security for Medicare patients.”

AARP would not say how much it received from UnitedHealthcare in exchange for permission to use the AARP brand on the insurer’s Medicare Advantage products. AARP said money it received from branding the products is “plowed back into AARP and helps keep our dues low and funds programs and services that improve the lives of people age 50+,” Allen said.

Enrollment in Medicare Advantage plans starts today and ends Dec. 7, but there is still widespread confusion about which doctors are in or out of the network. Some notices may have been sent erroneously, according to the Connecticut State Medical Society.

For patients who have questions, AARP is referring them to UnitedHealthcare for answers, telling them to call the number of the back of their health insurance ID cards.

“Recently, UnitedHealthcare adopted a new approach to managing the provider networks for their Medicare Advantage plans to meet the specific needs of their members,” Allen said. “This includes changing the size and makeup of their provider network. While AARP is aware of these changes, we have no direct influence or control over decisions or the process itself.”

AARP is talking to doctors to find out more.

“Through AARP Services, Inc., which manages relationships with providers of AARP-branded products and services, we are collecting relevant information about this new approach and are sharing it with UnitedHealthcare,” Allen said.

About Matthew Sturdevant

Full-time staff journalist at The Hartford Courant and magazine freelancer with a master's degree in writing from Dartmouth. My work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, Taiwan News, The Baltimore Sun and many other news sources. My blog has been referenced by Politico.com, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Georgetown Law Library and a number of organizations in healthcare and business. Sturdevant’s blog is "a well-written wealth of ideas," said The Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, (businessjournalism.org, May 18, 2011). I have experience writing for newspapers, magazines, Web sites and blogs as well as shooting and editing video. I made regular appearances on news-talk radio and on the NBC affiliate station in Corpus Christi, Texas. I made occasional appearances on the Fox affiliate in Connecticut promoting Hartford Courant articles.

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