The University of Mississippi Medical Center’s communications with two news outlets are targets of a subpoena filed by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Mississippi on Monday as part of its defamation lawsuit against some of the medical center’s top officials.
Last week, Blue Cross sued three top UMMC employees, alleging defamation and civil conspiracy over the public relations campaign the medical center has been waging against the insurer due to their contract dispute.
Blue Cross is seeking to compel UMMC to provide their internal communications with Mississippi Today and Supertalk Radio, two news outlets which have closely covered the effects of the ongoing contract dispute between the state’s largest hospital and private insurer.
The filing demands all written communications between UMMC and these outlets related to Blue Cross, its contract dispute with UMMC and UMMC’s public relations campaign. The subpoena also specifically seeks communications between UMMC officials and Kate Royals, Mississippi Today’s community health editor who worked as a writer/editor at UMMC between stints at the news organization.
Mississippi Today nor any of its employees have been subpoenaed or been named as a party in any lawsuit related to the contract dispute.
The communications between UMMC and several prominent statewide medical groups are also subject to the subpoena, including the board of trustees of the Mississippi State Medical Association and the board of governors of the Mississippi Hospital Association.
Officials at Blue Cross and UMMC declined to comment for this story. A representative for the Mississippi State Medical Association declined to comment, and a representative for Supertalk Radio did not return a request for comment.
“MHA has not seen the subpoena and is not a party to the dispute; but, we hope the matter can be quickly resolved,” said Richard Roberson, general counsel and vice president at the Mississippi Hospital Association, in a statement.
UMMC has been out of network with Blue Cross, the state’s largest insurer, since April 1 due to disagreements over reimbursement rates and Blue Cross’ quality care plan. Since then, UMMC has spent nearly $279,000 on digital ads, commercials and billboards attacking Blue Cross. The insurer claims the campaign was “designed to disseminate false and defamatory statements about Blue Cross to the public.”
UMMC itself is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit because as a political subdivision of the state, Mississippi law grants UMMC sovereign immunity for defamation committed by its employees.
As UMMC voluntarily ended its contract with Blue Cross, the insurer claims that UMMC’s messaging that Blue Cross “forced out” or “excluded” the medical center from its network has harmed its business and reputation. The alleged defamation occurred through various public statements made by UMMC officials and through advertisements it has run over the last four months, according to the insurer.
Blue Cross is seeking an injunction against the continued publication and dissemination of the statements it considers defamatory as well as monetary damages from defendants. In addition to unnamed UMMC employees, the insurer sued Dr. LouAnn Woodward, Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs and Dean of the School of Medicine, Dr. Alan Jones, Associate Vice Chancellor for Clinical Affairs, and Marc Rolph, Executive Director of Communications and Marketing.
Editor’s note: UMMC, through an ad agency, has placed paid advertisements about the BCBS dispute on Mississippi Today’s website. Advertisers have no input in the editorial process.
Editor’s note: Kate Royals, Mississippi Today’s community health editor since January 2022, worked as a writer/editor for UMMC’s Office of Communications from November 2018 through August 2020, writing press releases and features about the medical center’s schools of dentistry and nursing. A longtime journalist in major Mississippi newsrooms, Royals had served as a Mississippi Today reporter for two years before her stint at UMMC. At UMMC, Royals was in no way involved in management decisions or anything related to the medical center’s relationship or contract with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Mississippi.