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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Intermountain Health Care has promised to sue fewer patients for unpaid medical bills and to provide greater access to doctors and hospitals outside the IHC network.
The new policies come after the IHC was criticized during the 2005 legislative session for alleged aggressive collection tactics and punitive insurance policies.
Critics said if the company operates like a for-profit company, perhaps is should be taxed like one.
IHC said Wednesday that it will cut interest rates for patients on payment plans and make it easier for them to resolve billing problems.
IHC Chief Financial Officer Bert Zimmerli said IHC will not take patients to court for unpaid medical bills unless there is evidence of fraud or the individual clearly can afford to pay but won't.
Currently one in every 1,000 patient bills is delinquent and referred to the courts, IHC estimates. That could drop to one in 4,000 under the new plan.
"Obviously all the care can't be free to everybody," he said. "(But) the fear of a medical bill should never impede anyone from getting the help they need."
Salt Lake City bankruptcy attorney Michael Roberts predicts fewer bankruptcies as a result.
"This is a big deal," he said. "Almost every day I see a judgment in favor of IHC."
IHC also said it will establish an ombudsman's office to serve as an advocate for patients with unresolved billing problems.
It also plans to establish citizen advisory groups.
To address complaints from patients wanting to visit doctors outside the IHC network, a new preferred provider plan will allow policyholders to access all qualified physicians and facilities, although it undoubtedly will cost more than other plans in which patients are more limited on which physicians and facilities they may use.
Additionally, the company no longer will lease its physician panels to other insurance providers in Utah.
Panels are groups of physicians that agree to accept certain types of insurance coverages. Most major insurance companies have their own panels, although a number of smaller insurers lease theirs from IHC.
Val Bateman, executive vice president of the Utah Medical Association, said physicians have had some trouble in the past with some small insurance companies that have used IHC's panels.
"We are very much in favor of this change," he said.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)