UnitedHealth rival is trying to win back military contract

•TriWest calls the decision "inexplicable."

A company that UnitedHealth Group Inc. beat out for a key military health care contract earlier this month is fighting to get back the work, worth as much as $20.5 billion.

TriWest Healthcare Alliance Corp. on Monday filed its protest with the Government Accountability Office, which arbitrates disputes over government contracts. The GAO has until July 5 to make a decision, said Ralph White, the head of the GAO's bid protest forum.

In a statement that Phoenix-based TriWest issued Monday, the company's CEO called the U.S. Department of Defense's contracting decision "inexplicable."

UnitedHealth has a "long history of performance problems and legal issues" and has "no history of providing health care to the military," TriWest CEO David McIntyre Jr. said in the statement.

"TriWest's price was significantly lower than UnitedHealth Group's price," it said.

The five-year contract, which starts in April 2013, is to provide active duty and retired military personnel in the western half of the United States, including Minnesota, with health care coverage. It was a strategic win for UnitedHealth, which has been working to get a foot in the military market.

TriWest originally won the contract in 2009, but UnitedHealth protested the decision and, earlier this month, won the rebid.

Matt Stearns, a spokesman for Minnetonka-based United Health, called TriWest's assertions "ungrounded."

"I think TriWest's behavior is unfortunate," Stearns said in an interview. "It's important to remember that competition for these contracts is essential to achieving best value for the government, taxpayers and beneficiaries."

100 days to decide

The GAO's White said the protest documents are covered by a protective order. The GAO has to make a decision within 100 calendar days of a protest being filed.

Of the protests that go to a final decision, protesters win in about 18 to 20 percent of the cases, according to the GAO's annual report. Most bid protests, however, don't go that far.

More often, the government agency that awarded the contract pulls back the award and finds another way to resolve the dispute, White said.

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683

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