- The Washington Times - Friday, August 19, 2005

The Maryland State Medical Society filed a lawsuit yesterday against insurance conglomerate UnitedHealth Group Inc., the owner of Mid Atlantic Medical Services LLC.

The medical group, which represents 7,000 doctors, said UnitedHealth violated state law by requiring Maryland doctors to participate in all of the company’s health insurance plans instead of being allowed to pick some of them.

Doctors who refused to participate in all the plans lost access to any of UnitedHealth’s programs, said Executive Director Michael Preston.

“Because of inordinate bargaining power, giant health plans have introduced an all-or-nothing mentality, which is unfair to physicians,” Mr. Preston said. He was not aware whether other insurance carriers in the state have a similar rule.

UnitedHealth spokeswoman Joyce Larkin said the Minnetonka, Minn., company, with about 2 million members in the Mid-Atlantic region, had no knowledge that the lawsuit had been filed.

“However, to the extent there are issues to be addressed, we would be more than willing to look into them,” Ms. Larkin said.

The medical society is asking Montgomery County Circuit Court to rule that UnitedHealth broke state law, Mr. Preston said, adding that the group is not pursuing a monetary award.

School soda policies

Most area public schools say they had nutritional standards for their vending machines before the beverage industry’s announcement Wednesday of rules tightening soda sales in schools.

The American Beverage Association called on companies to remove soda from elementary schools and reduce the amount sold in middle and high schools. Major soda manufacturers such as Pepsico. Inc. and Coca-Cola Co. agreed to the new policies.

But school administrations in Fairfax, Loudoun, Arlington, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties said they have had restrictions on soda vending machines in place for several years.

Most of the restraints pertain to high school vending machines, with many operating on a timer that stops soda sales during school hours.

The District in October started a nutritional vending machine program at six of its middle and high schools, which restricted the drink selection to water, low-fat milk and 100 percent fruit juice. The program was implemented later in all D.C. public schools.

Alexandria also has limitations on when soda can be sold at T.C. Williams High School, the only school in the city with soft-drink machines.

Additionally, several counties said they have been examining ways to put healthier alternatives in their vending machines.

Drug prices rise

Prescription drug prices for the 195 most-used brands outpaced the inflation rate during the first three months of the year, according to the AARP.

Prices for brand drugs on average jumped 6.6 percent while inflation rose by 3 percent, said a quarterly report released this week by the District-based senior citizens group.

Although brand-name drug prices shot up, generic drug prices on average fell nearly 1 percent, the report said.

Health Care runs Fridays. Call Marguerite Higgins at 202/636-4892 or e-mail mhiggins@washingtontimes.com.

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