Sorry, governor, but your Steelers game is about to be interrupted by more UPMC ads.
Just as Pittsburgh's No. 1 health system unveiled two new anti-Highmark TV ads -- originally airing Thursday, and set to broadcast this weekend and during Sunday's season opener -- a task force created by Gov. Tom Corbett rapped Highmark and UPMC for a "lack of professionalism and judgment" regarding their ongoing TV and radio advertising campaigns.
The dueling health titans appear to be trying to scare customers, according to a letter sent to the CEOs of both companies by two top state officials.
The letter was issued (and released publicly) by state Insurance Commissioner Michael Consedine and state Secretary of Health Michael Wolf, addressed to Highmark CEO William Winkenwerder Jr. and UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff, as well as legal officials from Highmark and UPMC.
Officials from the Insurance Department and the Health Department make up Mr. Corbett's Interagency Consumer Protection Task Force, created last month to deal with consumer confusion in the health care realm, and particularly the confusion arising from the protracted public relations battle between Pittsburgh's largest insurer and its largest hospital network.
"The advertisements appear to be intended to drive consumers to choose their health insurance and health provider based on fear," the letter says, urging the companies to "refocus on their primary mission to serve" their patients and subscribers.
The letter, dated Thursday, also said the task force has discussed the ad campaigns with both organizations in the past two weeks, and asked Highmark and UPMC to again clarify how the two organizations will cooperate when it comes to access for Medicare and Medicare Advantage plan customers.
Paul Wood, UPMC spokesman, said UPMC would reissue a joint statement or advertisement with Highmark regarding Medicare access, but that Highmark has "balked at doing so."
He also said UPMC would be "more than pleased to work with the task force to determine what ads they feel might be misleading, or inaccurate, and negative."
In a statement, Highmark said that "Highmark's communications in the media have been positive. They focus on the need for the parties to work together to establish a more constructive relationship and on affordable access to care."
Highmark also said that "We believe that UPMC should make a firm, long-term commitment to Highmark's Medicare Advantage members by renewing its facility contracts annually through at least 2020, and assuring in-network access to their physicians during the same period."
UPMC is adding two new Highmark-related ads to its growing rotation, one addressing out-of-network rates ("you'll only pay those out-of-network rates if you stick with Highmark") and another about how easy it to switch away from Highmark and into a more UPMC-friendly health insurance policy.
Highmark is not planning any ads for the Steelers game, according to a spokeswoman.
The ad war intensified this summer after the state Insurance Department approved Highmark's takeover of the financially ailing West Penn Allegheny Health System, which triggered the launch of Highmark's new Allegheny Health Network.
In August, UPMC sued Highmark in U.S. District Court, alleging false advertising.
The contract between Highmark and UPMC expires at the end of 2014, meaning if the two don't arrive at a new contract before then, many Highmark customers won't have access to UPMC doctors and hospitals.
Highmark says it wants a new, long-term contract, but UPMC says it doesn't, because it won't do business with a competitor -- which Highmark is, now that it runs its own hospital network.
Bill Toland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2625.