TeamHealth CEO on UnitedHealth underpayment lawsuits: 'What is it going to take?'

On the heels of a legal victory out of a Nevada courtroom, TeamHealth CEO Leif Murphy told Becker's that he is both proud of a decisive win against UnitedHealthcare and wary that the company's remaining lawsuits against the payer won't shift a larger paradigm. 

The physician services company is suing UnitedHealthcare across the country over allegations that the payer shortchanged physicians through its shared savings plan. While the inaugural case concluded Dec. 8 in Nevada, cases are ongoing in several other states.

Mr. Murphy said the fight is one that represents a battle many providers face against large payers. Being able to deliver a win is a victory for providers who feel undercut by insurers. 

"We as providers can hold managed care accountable if they decide that they are going to unfairly reimburse us or underpay us," Mr. Murphy said. "So had the jury not been able to make that determination, or had the complexity been too large, that would have been difficult going forward. But I think the jury's ability to digest this complex case and make a clear determination — I think it says a great deal for our ability to resolve these things in litigation going forward."

The jury for the Nevada lawsuit ruled in favor of $60 million in punitive damages against UnitedHealthcare. Mr. Murphy said testimony from Rebecca Paradise, UnitedHealth Group vice president of out of network payment strategy, and closing statements from the defense attorneys convinced him that, alongside the damages, UnitedHealthcare would take the ruling in stride. 

"I actually thought the punitive damages were going to have an impact," Mr. Murphy said. "But literally the next morning, their spokesperson came on and made this statement that everyone agrees health care costs are too high and [the Nevada] decision only adds to the problem. There was this complete dismissal with what the jury had to say. It's disappointing."

At the time of the ruling, UnitedHealthcare made the following statement: "Everyone agrees healthcare costs too much, and today's decision only adds to the problem. We will be appealing this decision immediately in order to protect our customers and members from private equity-backed physician staffing companies who demand unreasonable and anticompetitive rates for their services and drive up the cost of care for everyone."

Mr. Murphy said he remains unsure that the Nevada win will spark as much change as is necessary. However, considering ongoing cases against UnitedHealthcare are over fundamentally the same issue, he's confident that TeamHealth's first courtroom win won't be its last. 

"I'm concerned," Mr. Murphy said. "What is it going to take? We've got nine more lawsuits, each which will be tried on the same facts and better facts. So if United hasn't heard it — if the volume hasn't been turned up at their headquarters — I'm shocked."

Since publication, UnitedHealthcare told Becker's that it intends to appeal on several grounds, including that the jury was unable to hear key evidence about the parties' recent contract termination and explanations as to why the payer found its payments to be reasonable.

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