At least one major Triangle employer will allow workers to switch their health coverage if Aetna's contract with the UNC Health Care System is terminated next week.
GlaxoSmithKline, which employs about 5,000 people in this region, has told workers who are signed up for Aetna coverage that they can transfer to a similar health plan offered by UnitedHealthcare. Employees chose between Aetna and United for their coverage last fall, said GSK spokeswoman Mary Anne Rhyne.
"Health insurance is an important benefit for our employees," she said. "The company doesn't want them to have any disruption."
Rhyne said she couldn't say how many employees are covered by Aetna. The British's pharmaceutical's North American headquarters is in Research Triangle Park and it also has a manufacturing plant in Zebulon.
The move by GSK could increase pressure on Aetna to settle its contract dispute with UNC Health. The insurer doesn't want to lose members, and has been working to coordinate care with other local physicians and hospitals.
Aetna estimates about 8,000 patients in this area could be effected if the contract with UNC Health isn't renewed. The contract expires Feb. 5 and the two sides remain at odds over reimbursement rates.
UNC Health officials want more money to treat patients at its facilities, including Rex Healthcare in Raleigh, and affiliated physician practices.
"We're not going to subsidize Aetna," UNC Health CEO Bill Roper told the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees on Thursday. "So we are about to end that relationship unless they change their minds."
Aetna executives have said that UNC Health is requesting too much money, including fees as much as 52 percent higher for Rex-affiliated physicians. The higher costs would be passed on to employers and members.
"We have been in contact with many of our employers throughout this process," Aetna spokesman Walt Cherniak said. "We're trying to hold the line in medical costs for them. They've been encouraging us to continue pushing for a more reasonable contract."
It's not surprising that losing access to a hospital or provider in a network will effect an employer's decision about benefits, he added. "That doesn't change the situation we're in, a disagreement about the size of rate increases UNC should be receiving."