BCBS disputes account

Denies seeking Rand's help

Staff WriterFebruary 14, 2010 

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina executives said Friday that they did not ask a powerful senator to gut a law reining in escalating inmate medical costs, but e-mail records and interviews with the principals show otherwise.

On Aug. 5, the legislature passed its budget bill, which included a provision mandating that inmates treated at hospitals would be billed at the same rates as the State Health Plan for state workers and teachers. Legislators, staff, the hospital association, Blue Cross and the State Health Plan had discussed the issue on and off for weeks.

The provision would have saved the state millions on hospital treatment for inmates. The Department of Correction's spending on hospital care has skyrocketed over the past decade, from $17.5 million in 1999 to $55.8 million in 2009. A state audit last week showed that hospitals charged at nearly their highest rates to treat inmates.

On the day the governor signed the budget law, state Sen. Tony Rand inserted language in a legislative housekeeping bill that effectively gutted the money-saving provision. Blue Cross CEO Brad Wilson said Friday that his organization did not request the change.

"We were asked by the State Health Plan to look at it. They were very concerned about the provision," Wilson said Friday. "We did not act unilaterally out of self-interest."

But the top brass at the State Health Plan said that they never asked Blue Cross for input on the law that passed.

"We were focused on how to operationalize what was passed" in the budget, said Jack Walker, executive director of the plan.

"We didn't consider it our language," said Lacey Barnes, the plan's deputy executive administrator.

On Aug. 5, the day the budget passed, Blue Cross lobbyist Mark Fleming said in e-mail to Rand's assistant, "I talked to Senator Rand about the prisoner issue and he said to get him language immediately for technical correction bill."

Fleming sent the e-mail to Rand's assistant, Blue Cross officials and a legislative analyst, but not to the State Health Plan. Rand's assistant forwarded Blue Cross' proposed language to Walker: "Any thoughts?" In the following days, Blue Cross lobbyists and lawyers sent refined drafts to State Health Plan officials.

Wilson said it was not in Blue Cross' interest to change the law, since Blue Cross would have made money from processing the inmates' claims. He said Blue Cross wanted changes because the law was constitutionally defective as written. Wilson also said that the current law, which was rewritten at Blue Cross' request, has constitutional problems.

joseph.neff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4516

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