The state of Massachusetts filed suit last week against Harvard U to prevent the prestigious 364-year-old institution of higher learning from trying to strip Harvard Pilgrim Health Care of the right to use the Harvard name.
The HMO is in receivership while the state figures out how to restore it to financial health after losing $197 million in 1999.
Brookline, Mass.-based Harvard Pilgrim originated in 1969 as Harvard Community Health Plan. Doctors affiliated with Harvard Medical School started the plan, and it later merged with Pilgrim Health Care.
State Attorney General Thomas Reilly and Insurance Commissioner Linda Ruthardt, who are overseeing the rehabilitation of the HMO, sued the university on Feb. 23 in the state's Supreme Judicial Court.
The complaint came in reaction to a Feb. 18 letter from the university to Reilly and Ruthardt, saying that it "asserts rights to the use of its name by Harvard Pilgrim or by any successor."
Meanwhile, Harvard University is withdrawing permission from Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates to use the Harvard name past the end of this year. The doctors group serves most of Harvard Pilgrim's patients.
The doctors group has a contract giving it rights to use the Harvard name for three years, but the health plan and the university have no such signed agreement.
"The Harvard name is a valuable asset to this distinguished health plan and we will fight to protect that asset," Reilly said.
The state officials have asked that a special master be appointed to resolve the conflict.
Joe Wrinn, spokesman for the university, said, "We don't feel that letter automatically removes the name from the mix. We believe we have a right to how the use of the name Harvard occurs. It is time to remind people of that as Harvard Pilgrim is transitioning to something new."
Wrinn said the university wants to play a constructive role in resolving the Harvard Pilgrim situation.
The name Harvard is appended to many businesses in the Cambridge, Mass., area, such as Harvard Pizza, Harvard Glass and Mirror, or Harvard Chinese Restaurant.
Thirty years ago, the university wasn't as formal in its agreements on the use of its name. Today it is trying to exert more control. Sending a letter is "how we address issues like this when the name hasn't been licensed," Wrinn said.