CHAPEL HILL — University of North Carolina leaders aren’t sure whether a partnership between UNC Health Care and Carolinas HealthCare System would help — or hurt — North Carolinians, UNC President Margaret Spellings said Friday.

The plan, introduced in August, would join the two nonprofit systems, making it one of the largest in the nation. UNC Health Care says the partnership would cut costs and increase access to better care. Critics are calling foul.  

A joint operating company could drive costs up by stifling competition and forcing insurers to increase payouts, some economists and antitrust law experts say.

Dr. Patrick Conway, president and CEO of BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina, came out against the partnership in a public letter Wednesday.

“Blue Cross NC has a responsibility to our customers to help slow rising health costs. After a thorough review of independent research which shows that when health care systems combine costs for consumers go up, Blue Cross NC cannot support your proposed combination,” says the letter to Gene Woods of Carolinas HealthCare and Dr. Bill Roper of UNC Health Care.

The UNC Board of Governors understands UNC Health Care’s role is service to the people of North Carolina, Spellings told Carolina Journal. The jury is out on whether the merger is good for consumers.

“The short answer today is, we don’t know yet,” Spellings told CJ after a UNC board meeting during which members discussed the issue. “There is lots to process here. These are competitive markets.”

Health care costs are facing “a tremendous amount of downwards pressure across the country,” board Chair Lou Bissette said.

Partnerships and mergers are trending among providers, Spellings said. UNC’s leadership will study the issue thoroughly before deciding.

“This is a board that is asking all the right questions and understands fully the mission of the university,” Spellings said.

The full board has not discussed partnership terms and is not ready to make a decision, Bissette said.

UNC and Carolinas HealthCare are publicly owned and control about $14 billion in annual operating revenue. Together, the systems govern 50 hospitals and hire more than 90,000 employees.

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