Arieal view of Northside Hospital with the sun setting and reflecting off the building
Northside Hospital Cherokee. (Georgia Health News)

Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield has named a new president of its Georgia operation just days before a possible contract cutoff with Northside Hospital.

Robert Bunch, a longtime Anthem official, replaces Pam Stahl, who has taken a job in another industry, the insurer said late last week.

The leadership change comes amid a flurry of court activity in the dispute, which has caught the attention of many of the estimated 400,000 Anthem patients in metro Atlanta who use Northside hospitals, clinics and doctors.

Close up of white man soft smiling with dark hair with black blazer and blue shirt with red and blue stripped tie.
Robert Bunch is the new president of Anthem’s Georgia operations. (Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield)

Bunch, who formerly was chief operating officer and vice president of Anthem’s national accounts, has already been involved in the contract negotiations with Northside, the insurer said. Bunch “will now take an even more prominent role as our local business leader,’’ said Anthem spokeswoman Tina Gaines.

Northside’s potential departure from Anthem’s network would open a prominent hole in the insurer’s provider lineup in metro Atlanta.

For months, the two sides have been unable to reach a deal on reimbursement rates.

Their contract was scheduled to end Jan. 1, but Northside was granted an injunction by Fulton County Superior Court. Under the terms of that court order, patients using Northside’s medical services will remain in the Anthem network until Jan. 31.

Anthem later filed a motion requesting an end to that court order.

The most recent step in the legal battle involves a motion from Cherokee County, filed last week, to intervene in the matter as an added plaintiff backing Northside’s position. Cherokee, in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, noted that Northside operates the only hospital in the county.

“When Cherokee County contracted with Anthem to serve as the administrator of Cherokee County’s employee health plan, it never imagined that Anthem would one day exclude the only acute care hospital and countless other indispensable (and irreplaceable) health care providers in the county from its network,’’ the motion says.

The five-hospital Northside system has pointed out that the legal battle comes during the fifth surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.

In its court filings to delay the end of the contract, Northside cited a new Georgia law that went into effect in July. House Bill 454 includes a provision saying that during a public health emergency, an insurer is prohibited from ending such a contract with a medical provider.

In a statement announcing the new Georgia president, Anthem executive Brian Shipp said Bunch “brings a wealth of experience to this role and a commitment to fulfilling our mission of improving the lives and communities we serve.

“In addition to in-depth knowledge of the health care industry, Robert is a proven leader who spent many years in the Georgia market, which will benefit our members, employer customers and provider partners.”

Bunch said in a statement that he is “honored to be asked to lead Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in my home state of Georgia.”

“We have a talented, dedicated team in Georgia focused on innovation and collaboration in order to bring greater affordability and better health outcomes for the people we serve,’’ he said.

For more from Fresh Take Georgia and the latest updates, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.