Northwest Medical Center has been at odds with UnitedHealthcare since March. The two reached an agreement Saturday.

Courtesy of Northwest Medical Center 2016

It was well beyond a last-minute agreement, but Northwest Healthcare is once again an in-network provider for thousands of Tucson-area UnitedHealthcare patients.

In a joint news release sent at 2 p.m. Saturday, both entities said they had reached a new three-year contract agreement that will keep all Northwest Healthcare facilities, urgent-care locations and physicians in UnitedHealthcare’s network.

A public standoff between the two for-profit companies was punctuated by finger-pointing and dueling newspaper opinion pieces, and no agreement was reached by the May 1 deadline.

That meant the contract was severed, leaving patients on Tucson’s northwest side scrambling to find new providers. Senior citizens and people with chronic illnesses were particularly hard-hit, some of them faced with giving up specialists they’d had for years.

But the new agreement is effective immediately, officials said, and retroactive. Patients who received care at Northwest during the out-of-network period beginning Monday, May 1, will be processed as in-network, the joint statement says.

Northwest Healthcare, owned by Tennessee-based Community Health Systems, had set up a website, StandUpToUnitedAz, while the dispute was ongoing. That site now redirects to the Northwest Healthcare website, which has news of the agreement .

“Our community is the real beneficiary because the agreement ensures they continue to have the freedom to choose their provider without any further disruption,” Northwest CEO Kevin Stockton said in a prepared statement.

Officials with both companies thanked the public for their support and patience. Northwest Healthcare first sent out letters to affected patients on March 2, and many patients have been getting increasingly anxious about losing their providers ever since.

“We understand that these last few weeks have been difficult for people in northwest Tucson who rely on the Northwest system for their medical needs. We are honored to continue supporting these members and the more than 2 million people across Arizona who depend on us for access to quality, cost-effective health care,” UnitedHealthcare of Arizona CEO Dave Allazetta said.

The new contract is focused on value-based performance and quality of care, similar to Northwest Healthcare’s contracts with other large health insurers in the area, officials on both sides of the agreement said.

The agreement comes just as UnitedHealthcare patients of Northwest Healthcare are receiving letters telling them how to proceed with Northwest as out of network. Patients can disregard those letters now.

“This is good news for all the people out here in this area who will not have to drive 40 minutes to see a doctor,” said Marana resident Michael Browning, who was dreading losing the Northwest Healthcare primary care doctor he’d been seeing for years.

The retired businessman is in good health and fortunately had been to his doctor before the contract was severed. He’d been hoping for the best.

“I was going to wait it out and not actively try to find a primary-care physician for a certain length of time, maybe three months,” Browning said. “But I am happy I don’t have to search for one. Everyone would have been scrambling at the same time. … I’m glad it settled. From a consumer standpoint, it works for me. I really like my primary-care physician.”

Estimates of affected patients ranged from 46,000 to 60,000 — critical enough that Tucson’s largest physician group weighed in on the dispute and called for both sides to do the “moral and ethical thing” and reach a truce.

“That’s terrific,” Pima County Medical Society Board member and past president Dr. Tim Fagan said Saturday afternoon, when told of the resolution. “We’re delighted. The only regret is that they couldn’t figure it out five days sooner, so they didn’t get so many people so worried and upset.”

Contact health reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or email

sinnes@tucson.com.

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