Don't follow in Highmark's footsteps in a public image crisis

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Talk about a public image problem. Highmark has shot itself in the foot--multiple times, I might add--over its potentially dead deal with West Penn Allegheny Health System. Although the Pittsburgh-based insurer wasn't the one who allegedly pulled the plug on the planned acquisition, it is bearing the brunt of the negative publicity, not to mention public ire.

Not only have the payer and provider failed to uphold their ends of the mutually agreed upon bargain, they're now playing tit-for-tat in the courtroom, suing and countersuing each other over the demise of their $475 million deal.

Meanwhile, a state senator led about 100 people in a protest against Highmark, urging the insurer to resume merger talks with WPAHS. But guess what? They were locked out of the Highmark building. Oh, and Highmark also called the Pittsburgh police on those protestors.

Not exactly the best steps to garner public opinion. "You can see the disrespect that officials of Highmark demonstrated here today. I think they have unmitigated and it's very disappointing that they don't have the respect for the citizens that are here today," Pennsylvania State Sen. Jim Ferlo said. Note that Ferlo called out Highmark for not respecting citizens, including its very own members--a decision made in one case that easily could have long-term implications on a much bigger scale.

Highmark issued a statement saying it welcomes the public's support, but that seems to fly in the face of locking said public out and calling the cops on them. Considering Highmark already isn't in the public's good graces as it allegedly tried to bully WPAHS into filing for bankruptcy, a show of good will from the company could have really helped win over some critics.

And might I add that this public image snafu comes not far on the heels of Highmark's previous scandal when its then-CEO Kenneth Melani was arrested for assaulting the husband of his alleged mistress, who was also a Highmark employee. Just last April, the insurer and the ousted chief exec were exchanging barbs and accusations through the media over the reasons behind Melani's firing.

You'd think Highmark learned a lesson with that experience, namely that using the media to fight your battles often only drags your own name and reputation down into the mud.

So what's the takeaway here? I think it's that other insurers should consider every Highmark action as an example of what not to do the next time they face a public image nightmare. Almost any other choice along the path would have been a wiser decision. Sometimes exploring others' missteps can inform your own choices. So take note of Highmark, for sure, but add its decisions to the let's-not-ever-consider-that-option category. - Dina (@HealthPayer)