Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. is considering acquiring all or part of Cleveland-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Ohio, according to a report published last week.
The Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal said unidentified sources confirmed that the Nashville, Tenn.-based hospital chain is conducting a "due diligence" review with Ohio's largest health insurer.
Neither the Blues nor Columbia would confirm that a deal is in the works.
Such a move would mark a departure for Columbia, the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain. Columbia President and Chief Executive Officer Richard Scott repeatedly has said the company does not intend to compete with insurers, which are its customers.
Entering the insurance business proved problematic for several provider organizations including, Humana, a Louisville, Ky.-based company that ended up splitting its insurance and hospital businesses into separate companies.
Peter G. Reibold, president of Columbia's Ohio division, issued a statement that said, "We have been open to discussions with a variety of organizations."
Blues spokesman David Buckel called the article "rumors." He said the insurer had no comment beyond a statement to employees.
The company told workers that: "For some time now, we have had discussions with many companies. To date, we have made no decisions."
For a sale to be completed, the Blues would have to switch to for-profit status, which would require approval from the state.
A purchase of the insurer would further alter the balance among healthcare providers in northeast Ohio.
In November, Columbia bought a 50% share of Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine Health System, which includes St. Vincent Charity Hospital in Cleveland, Timken Mercy Medical Center in Canton and St. John West Shore Hospital in the Cleveland suburb of Westlake. Columbia also owns a diagnostic center and a surgery center in a Cleveland suburb.
Also, the Blues has several deals with hospitals, including a for-profit venture with Meridia Health System in Cleveland.
Under the venture, the four-hospital system owns a 12% stake in the Super Blue HMO.
A Meridia spokeswoman said the system has no involvement in the reported negotiations.
The Blues also has affiliations with Saint Luke's Medical Center in Cleveland and Riverside Hospital in Toledo.
Both affiliations give the Blues power in hospital governance.