Minneapolis-based UCare asked a Ramsey County judge Friday to install the HMO as an option next year in parts of the state where county boards have indicated a preference for the health plan.

In July, Gov. Mark Dayton announced the results of competitive bidding that would drop UCare for most with coverage through the Medicaid and MinnesotaCare public health insurance programs.

On Friday, UCare attorney Larry Espel argued that in dropping UCare, the state Department of Human Services (DHS) was denying enrollees a free choice of insurance options. Espel also said the state didn't allow for enough input from counties in making the decision.

But Scott Ikeda, the assistant attorney general representing the department, countered that state's bidding process was fair and properly executed.

The change will affect 369,000 enrollees in UCare, prompting Espel to predict: "There's going to be confusion. There's going to be disruption and chaos."

But Ikeda characterized some of UCare's challenges as "after-the-fact complaining."

"It sounds like what UCare wants is to roll the clock back before the Legislature required competitive bidding," he said.

Ramsey County District Judge Robert Awsumb said he will issue a ruling by Sept. 4, which is when DHS expects to begin an open enrollment process that will inform enrollees of plan options for next year.

The state contracts are for Medicaid, which provides coverage for people at or below the poverty level, and MinnesotaCare, which covers a slightly higher income group. They don't change UCare's status in the Medicare market, where the HMO continues to have a large presence.

When evaluating bids put forward by health plans, DHS says 55 county boards recommended UCare as a health plan option, while 32 did not. Currently, UCare is an option for Medicaid enrollees in 62 counties, and MinnesotaCare enrollees in 71 counties.

During Friday's court hearing, Hennepin County and three health insurers spoke in opposition to UCare's motion. The county operates a managed care program called Hennepin Health that likely will gain enrollment under the new state contracts.

Beth Ann Stack, an attorney for Hennepin County, argued that in providing a free choice to enrollees, DHS is not required to offer unlimited choices.

Blue Plus, which is a division of Eagan-based Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, and Minnetonka-based Medica also stand to gain membership under the new contracts. HealthPartners, based in Bloomington, could pick up membership in some counties, but an attorney for the HMO noted the insurer is being dropped from Hennepin County after 30 years.

Like Blue Plus and Medica, HealthPartners opposed the UCare motion. If Awsumb grants UCare's request, HealthPartners in Hennepin County and other losing bidders in other counties will forward similar arguments, said David Schultz, an attorney for the HMO. "Then it really opens up the floodgates," Schultz said.

Espel, the UCare attorney, countered that his client would be open to Awsumb giving DHS the choice between letting UCare in or throwing out all bids to start the process over.

DHS used secretive criteria in evaluating bids the first time, Espel argued. Data about the bidding process should be made public, he said, or made available to the court.

DHS announced preliminary results of the competitive bidding process in July, but says it won't release details until contracts are finalized this fall.

Twitter: @chrissnowbeck