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Counselors seek patients’ help in BCBS fight

Some mental health providers are embroiled in a battle with Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Florida--and some are seeking patients' help.

The fight follows an August announcement that the insurer will end contracts with mental health providers on Nov. 1 and turn those services over to the Kansas-based managed-care company New Directions Behavioral Health.

Mental-health providers and groups, including the American Psychological Association, immediately branded the new contract --and its lower payments -- as “ridiculous” and wrote angry letters to government leaders.

Some also didn't hold back when informing patients of the change.

“My response within three minutes of looking at the contract was three words written on their cover sheet. I’ll let you guess where I told them to go,” wrote Gainesville psychologist Ernest Bordini in a letter to patients.

Similarly, Dr. Elias Sarkis of Gainesville posted a list on his website of how the quality of patient care would be negatively affected. Among other things, the list tells patients that New Directions will monitor patients' care closely to make sure they don't fall outside of the company's “very restrictive rules.”

The letter also says that the company will have “high levels of access” to treatment records and “be able to call patients any time without notice.”

Sarkis said he is encouraging his patients to notify their employers about the change and ask them to boycott BCBS-FL. James Sandoval, an Alachua County teacher and patient of Dr. Sarkis, said he is alarmed by the change.

“When Blue Cross Blue Shield makes the transition I will most likely have to leave the people who have kept me stable for so long,” he said. “Not just me but many others who perhaps are not as healthy as I am.”

Griff Docking, senior vice president and chief marketing officer for New Directions, said the company is unsure about how providers are conveying the switch to patients—but that consultants will help patients find new providers if theirs don't sign up.

He also said that the new pay rates are more in line with those offered by other companies in Florida and that the care offered through New Directions will be better than that offered by Blue Cross Blue Shield before the change.

For example, he said, patients will now have around-the-clock access to licensed physicians and intensive case management services for patients with the most serious conditions.

“The proof will be demonstrated as we all work together,” he said.

BCBS-FL spokesman Paul Kluding said he understands providers' anxiety, but that this will be “more advantageous for patients and for Blue Cross.”

“Change can be difficult to accept in any situation,” he wrote in an e-mail.

-Health News Florida is an independent online publication dedicated to public-service journalism. Reporter Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at 954-239-8968 or by e-mail.