Ascension Providence (copy)

A new sign stands outside Ascension Providence’s 237-bed hospital in Waco. The nonprofit health system is cutting ties with Scott & White Health Plan.

Ascension Providence’s decision to cut ties with Scott & White Health Plan has struck a nerve with community leaders such as Waco homebuilder Scott Bland, who wonders why Waco’s two largest healthcare providers apparently can’t get along.

Bland, immediate past president of the Heart of Texas Builders Association and member of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce board, said he’d like to know more about why Ascension Providence decided to cancel its contract with Scott & White Health Plan, effective Sept. 1. And he’d like the chamber to address the split before it causes thousands of people to lose healthcare choices.

He said the decision impacts him personally as his wife, Lisa Bland, oversees Baylor Scott & White Medical Center’s pediatric clinic, and the family has its namesake health plan, but their doctor is Jeffrey Arnold, affiliated with Ascension Providence.

“I see him at the Providence clinic on Sanger Avenue,” Scott Bland said. He’s great. I love him to death. He even lives in my neighborhood. He knows my medical history, treated me for my bout with flu this year.”

But after Sept. 1, that relationship could land on thin ice. Customers who have health insurance through Scott & White Health Plan will lose their in-network status at Ascension Providence health facilities, according to a statement the plan is sending some of its 220,000 members in Texas.

Providers terminating their service to plan members include Providence Health Center, the DePaul Center, which provides psychiatric and substance abuse counseling, Providence Health Alliance and Waco Internal Medicine Associates, according to statements the plan released.

“It stinks,” Bland said. “My wife and I dread even having to consider finding a new doctor. That’s a conversation I don’t want to have, and it’s not his fault. We’ll be OK. I guess I could see him out-of-network, but we haven’t run all the numbers on that, and we don’t know what would and would not be covered, period. It does not make the best financial sense.”

County Judge Scott Felton echoed Bland’s alarm, noting that nearly 900 McLennan County employees and 530 dependents fall under a healthcare program administered by Scott & White Health Plan. The county is self-insured, but the health plan processes the claims and pays providers.

“We want our employees to have as broad of an access to medical services as they can get, and we believe that’s what they’ve been getting,” said Felton. “This decision is giving them less than what they were accustomed to getting. That’s not what we like to do. Health plans, we believe, are benefits we can use as leverage to attract and retain good employees. They are as big as retirement packages, especially among young families.

“No one goes to one doctor anymore,” he said. “Less access is less value.”

Felton said McLennan County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Jones, several department heads and human resources employees plan meetings on the issue.

On Monday, Scott & White Health Plan released a statement, saying, “We are extremely disappointed that after more than 10 years of working together, Ascension Providence acted unilaterally in cancelling this contract. We are more than willing to continue including Ascension Providence hospitals and physicians in our network. It has always been and remains our priority to best serve our members, in part, by offering them appropriate choice among providers and facilities throughout all service areas.”

Scott & White Health Plan serves customers in 80 counties in Central, West and North Texas, according to information on its website. It also bought Austin-based FirstCare Health Plans, with a presence in 143 counties.

Brad Crye, vice president, operations, at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center, released his own statement Monday, saying, “Our health system is committed to serving our patients and members, and our team is working tirelessly to address the needs of those impacted by this network change.”

Crye serves on the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce board of directors, as does Philip Patterson, president of Ascension Providence. Calls and emails to Patterson and Ascension Providence seeking comment on the decision to cancel the contract had not been returned by Monday evening.

Scott Bland, noting that Ascension Providence and Scott & White Health each has chamber representation, said the chamber may want to consider taking up the matter. He suggested a call to chamber president Matt Meadors, who could not be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

Ascension Providence recently became the official name of the former Providence Healthcare Network, which has had a presence locally more than a century. Ascension, the Catholic nonprofit parent of Providence, operates 2,500 care sites and 151 hospitals around the country.

Julia Martin, administrator for Waco Gastroenterology Associates, said patients have their choice of hospitals, including Ascension Providence and Baylor Scott & White Medical Center, “and we try to remain neutral.”

She said doctors there have privileges at both locations.

“We’ve had a relationship with both hospitals for 30 years, so it doesn’t matter to us,” said Martin. “But, yes, if the choice is Providence and the patient has Scott & White Health Plan, it would become out-of-network. It is kind of sad for the patient. It limits their choices.”

Out-of-network services can mean higher costs and access to fewer doctors.

Waco Cardiology is a neighbor to the Ascension Providence healthcare complex near State Highway 6 and Sanger Avenue. But the heart doctors there enjoy privileges at both Baylor Scott & White Medical Center and Ascension Providence, and it will continue to accept Scott & White Health Plan members, said chief financial officer Ronnie Crawford, speaking by phone.

“We are not part of the Ascension Providence leaving. We will not be impacted at all, and we’ve sent letters to all of our Scott & White patients explaining that,” said Crawford. “I can’t speak for other specialty practices, but we’re going to be a part of Scott & White Health plan.”

Referrals are a different story, Crawford confirmed. Scott & White Health Plan patients who select treatment at Ascension Providence face out-of-network status, said Crawford, adding, “We will honor their wishes.”

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