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UnitedHealthcare to delay quality program


NEW YORK--A UnitedHealth Group Inc. unit will delay the implementation of a program to rank doctors in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, after state officials threatened to go to court to stop the effort.

In a statement, the Minnetonka, Minn.-based insurer said it was delaying the launch of the program, which ranks doctors on cost and quality, until the fourth quarter of 2007 to give physicians more time to become familiar with the "Premium Designation" program.

The New York Attorney General's office sent a letter Friday to the company's UnitedHealthcare unit requesting that it cease implementation of the program, which was scheduled for the end of this month, and gave the insurer two business days to respond. The letter stated that the attorney general was prepared to seek an injunction if the insurer failed to comply with the request.

The program analyzes physician and hospital practices against clinical guidelines for quality care and is designed to raise consumer awareness of differences among health care practices that can affect both the effectiveness and cost of care and treatment, according to the insurer's statement.

In its letter, the attorney general's office expressed concern that consumers may be steered to doctors based on "faulty data and criteria" and may be encouraged to choose doctors based on price rather than quality.

The insurer's profit motive may affect the accuracy of its quality rankings because high-quality doctors may be more expensive, which would be a conflict of interest, according to the attorney general's office.

"We believe that such a program would have a strong likelihood of causing consumer confusion, if not deception," the letter stated.

According to UnitedHealth, "Employers and individuals have asked for programs such as Premium Designation as they are frustrated with inconsistent quality and rising cost."

The New York attorney general's office could not be immediately reached for comment.