The nation's biggest health insurers lately have taken to rating hospitals on quality and cost, saying the information can help patients make better choices.
Now, hospitals are giving insurers a dose of their own medicine.
A survey of hospital executives to be released today found some national insurers have image problems of their own.
Three of the nation's five largest insurers had higher negative approval ratings than positive ones, according to the effort to gauge relations between hospitals and the insurers who hire them to take care of their members.
UnitedHealth Group Inc., which has contracts with 96% of the hospitals responding to the survey, was hit with the worst ratings. The Minnetonka, Minn.-based insurer received an "unfavorable" opinion from 91% of the hospital executives who responded, while 8% gave it a "favorable" rating. United owns PacifiCare of California.
Indianapolis-based WellPoint Inc., which owns Blue Cross of California, was second-worst with 48% unfavorable and 20% favorable. Philadelphia-based Cigna received 47% unfavorable and 44% favorable.
Hartford, Conn.-based Aetna got the best score with 57% favorable and 37% unfavorable. Other positively rated insurers included Coventry/First Health and regional insurers that were rated as a group.
United challenged the findings and methodology of the report. "UnitedHealthcare ranks above the industry regarding claims payments," said spokesman Tyler Mason, adding that it pays more than 20 million claims a month -- 95% of them within 10 days.
"We are working with many hospital systems to improve electronic claims submission to reduce the time to pay claims," Mason said. "Our goal is to work directly and collaboratively with hospitals to decrease administrative cost and complexity so that hospitals receive fair compensation for services at the same time balancing the overall healthcare cost in line with the consumer price index on behalf of our members."
A spokeswoman for Blue Cross parent WellPoint said it was reviewing the survey and that it took it upon itself to stay abreast of hospital executives' opinions through its own surveys.
Jan Emerson, a spokeswoman for the California Hospital Assn., said the survey confirmed "what we are hearing from a lot of our member hospitals about health plans that operate in California, particularly the two largest ones, United and Wellpoint."
Davies Public Affairs, a Santa Barbara firm that represents some hospitals, commissioned the survey. It was conducted by Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates Inc., a polling firm whose clients include politicians, corporations and the American Insurance Assn. The results were based on interviews with 113 executives representing more than 500 hospitals, or 10% of all U.S. hospitals.
The findings could help consumers shop for coverage, said Brandon Edwards, chief operating officer of Davies.
"It's definitely a wake-up call for the employers," Edwards said. "When you pick a health plan for your employees, think very hard about what the health plans' relationships are with their primary providers."