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Benefis employees' health options now limited

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Big news for more than 3,000 employees at Benefis Health System. Starting this October, anyone who is currently under Benefis’ provided health insurance plan will be restricted to visiting only OB/GYNs working at Benefis, leaving many women currently working for the hospital scrambling for a new doctor.

“It kind of breaks that trust, that continuity in the relationship that you’ve already established with a provider,” says Executive Director of the Montana Nurses Association, Vicky Byrd.

Her statement is just one possible result from the recent bombshell announcement.

On August 14, Benefis told employees that starting October 1, 2018, those receiving health insurance through Benefis will no longer be able to see OB/GYN providers who are not employed by the hospital.

The only exceptions are if someone is already undergoing a planned episode of care, which includes things like pregnancy, ablation, or a hysterectomy.

If you’re not in the middle of one of those situations, you have to get on board with one of six providers. A local medical professional tells me one of those providers lives in Michigan and sees patients by telemedicine, another hasn’t started yet, and two others are nurse practitioners who see office patients only.

So now, the question becomes, is this legal? An attorney in the area says what Benefis is doing isn’t necessarily illegal, but it does raise red flags regarding a non-profit acting as a monopoly. This attorney even went to far as to suggest the Montana Attorney General investigate.

So for now, it seems like there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

“I think I can confidently say that if there was a union in place, I couldn’t say if it would prevent it or not, but at least it would allow these nurses to have a collective voice in this process,” says Byrd.

We reached out to multiple employees at Benefis, who were uncomfortable speaking on the record for fear of retaliation.

That is, with the exception of Leesha Ford. She is a registered nurse who works per diem at Benefis. Her statements don’t reflect her employer and are 100 percent her own, but she does say while nurses in the hospital are upset, she does think a solution is possible if everyone would come together and listen.

"I really truly believe that Benefis will be stronger if they provide employees incentives without punishing employees and providers in the local area. And I care about it because I was born at that hospital, I've worked at that hospital for over 17 years, my mother worked at that hospital. And I really want to see it make good choices, I want to see our nurses thrive. And my daughter is a nurse, I want my daughter to come back and want to work at Benefis."

We did receive a statement from the Great Falls OB/GYN Associates, the former alternative provider for Benefis employees. Their statement reads as follows:

“As women’s health care providers, we at Great Falls Ob/Gyn Associates support every woman’s ability to have access to care with the doctor of her choice. We are grateful to be that option for many Benefis employees and spouses. Hopefully Benefis administration will consider the emotional and financial impact to their employees of denying access to long standing patient-doctor relationships.”

Benefis Health System declined to comment for this story.