Tricare contractor files protest

The Department of Defense’s recent decision to change the longtime contractor responsible for providing health care to 2.9 million Tricare military beneficiaries in the western United States poses a risk to military health care, the losing bidder charged Monday.

TriWest Healthcare Alliance, which lost the $20.5 billion contract to UnitedHealth Group to manage the west region for Tricare, the U.S. military’s health program, filed a protest Monday with the Government Accountability Office.

In a statement, David J. McIntyre Jr., TriWest president and chief executive, called the March 16 decision “inexplicable” and described UnitedHealth as “a company with a long history of performance problems and legal issues, and with no history of providing health care to the military.”

Matt Stearns, a spokesman for UnitedHealth Group, said the company had no comment on the TriWest protest.

UnitedHealth “looks forward to putting our experience, expertise and resources to work on behalf of Tricare beneficiaries, and we are grateful for the opportunity to do so,” Stearns said.

TriWest’s support of programs involving suicide prevention and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder had won praise from military leaders.

“They were leaders and innovators in trying to deliver those kinds of services to the Army and DoD,” retired Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, who served as the Army’s vice chief of staff until January, said in an interview Monday.

TriWest has held the Tricare west region contract for 16 years. But a decision in 2009 to again award TriWest the contract was protested by UnitedHealth, and Tricare subsequently reissued its solicitation for bids.

Kevin Dwyer, a spokesman for Tricare Management Activity, said the decision to award the contract to UnitedHealth was based on “technical proficiency, past performances and price.”

TriWest said its bid was hundreds of millions of dollars lower than UnitedHealth’s and claims that the change will force many beneficiaries either to lose access to their current doctors or pay more to continue seeing them.

Dwyer said “some beneficiaries may have to change providers, but it’s too early to speculate on how many.”

In September, TriWest paid the government $10 million to settle a whistleblower lawsuit alleging the company kept savings that should have been passed on to the government. Scott Celley, a spokesman for the company, blamed the problem on clerical errors.

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