Premier Now Under New Ownership

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Senior citizens who signed up with Premier Healthcare, in response to what many said were the rising costs of their Intergroup HMO memberships, may be in for a surprise.

They may have heard that MatureWell, a Tucson-based coordinated care company, finalized the purchase of Premier on March 22. The company plans to continue using the Premier name.

What they may not know is that MatureWell, in business just two years, is led by Rick Barrett, former president and chief executive officer of Intergroup.

Bill Cowan, a Strawberry resident who signed up with Premier at the first of the year, said Intergroup was well run when Barrett had it. "The rates never changed," Cowan said.

But a new owner raised Intergroup's rates in January 1999. Premier started accepting members at the time and Cowan and his wife, Ruth, switched companies after being with Intergroup since 1995.

They are now paying $4 for generic prescriptions and $15 for brand name prescriptions as opposed to the $15 and $25 for prescription drugs that Intergroup is now charging.

Cowan said what really got him to change to Premier is the twice-yearly hospital co-payment that Intergroup is now charging -- a total of $1,500 a year for two visits. Beyond two visits, there is no co-payment.

According to a press release from Premier spokesman Tom Lescault, the new company plans to maintain and improve the existing relationships with physicians and hospitals that have been contracting with Premier.

Lescault said in the press release that the medical benefits available to Premier members will stay the same, as will the costs for medical insurance. He said MatureWell also plans to increase its network of providers, giving a greater choice of physicians to its members.

"The recent acquisitions and mergers by national HMOs have left the Arizona business and medical communities without a local insurance company," Barrett is quoted as saying in the release. He added that Premier represents a local alternative to the national companies.

"Premier members and providers will not experience any changes because of the sale, except greater focus on them as customers of Premier," Barrett said.

Dr. Mark Ivey, with the Central Arizona Independent Physicians Association, said Monday he believes the change in ownership is "a wonderful opportunity for everybody."

Ivey said the sale allows for a profusion of knowledge and expertise along with an information system that is sorely needed in the rural areas of the state.

Central Arizona IPA has the contract with Premier in northern Gila County and now has about 700 local senior members of Premier, according to Ivey.

Cowan said his biggest concern is the "fuss" going on right now between Premier and the area's only hospital, Payson Regional Medical Center.

Russell Judd, chief executive officer of PRMC, said Monday that negotiations with Premier are still under way regarding a contract with the hospital, but no future meetings have been scheduled. The hospital currently has a contract with Intergroup, but the contract is not exclusive.

"I don't know if it will impact negotiations -- I just don't know," Judd said of Premier's ownership change.

Meanwhile, while PRMC will treat Premier patients for emergencies, they must go to hospitals in the Valley for other care.

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