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In a move that brings a dose of stability to the ever-changing health insurance world, Independent Health and the Catholic Health System today announced a new four-year agreement for the HMO's commercial members.

The agreement, announced at a morning news conference, covers about 85,000 Independent Health commercial members whose primary care comes under the umbrella of the Catholic Health System.

The package also ensures continued access to Catholic hospitals and physicians for the rest of Independent Health's 330,000 commercial members. Commercial members basically are those under 65 who aren't covered under Medicare or Medicaid.

The agreement is a four-year pact retroactive to Jan. 1 and continuing through the year 2002.

Officials from both sides stressed that the agreement does not cover subscribers to Independent Health's Encompass 65 program.

Today's agreement comes a little more than a year after Independent Health disappointed its elderly subscribers and received a huge public black eye when it announced it had chosen CGF Health System -- now Kaleida -- as the exclusive hospital network for its Medicare patients in Erie County.

That decision meant that Independent Health members over 65 no longer could use the area's Catholic hospitals, except for emergencies.

Officials from both organizations today stressed the significance of the length of the agreement in today's volatile health-insurance field.

"With the assurance and stability of this four-year agreement completed, both organizations can focus even more attention on meeting the health-care needs of our members and patients," said Frank Colantuono, president and chief executive officer of Independent Health.

Citing these "very difficult" times in health care, Dale St. Arnold, president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health System, hailed the long-term agreement's effect on patients.

"Securing a long-term contract such as this offers patients peace of mind in having access to the high-quality care provided by Catholic Health System organizations," St. Arnold said.

Officials from both Independent Health and the Catholic Health System said they were hopeful the new commercial agreement announced today eventually could lead to including the Catholic Health System and its physicians in an Independent Health managed-care program for seniors.

The two sides have had preliminary dialogue on that point and hope to continue their discussions in more detail, officials said.

The new contract includes Kenmore Mercy, Mercy, Sisters, St. Joseph and Our Lady of Victory hospitals plus other programs operated by the system.

Today's announcement also continues a recent trend of long-term health-insurance agreements that provide peace of mind to subscribers and long-term cost stability for HMOs and health providers.

Two weeks ago, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Western New York reached a long-term deal with Kaleida Health to treat all of the HMO's 570,000 members.

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