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HHS Fires up Rhetoric Against Health Insurance Industry

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, August 11, 2009

The Obama administration's pugnacity toward the nation's private health plans intensified today with the release of a short, but sharply worded HHS talking points memo detailing what federal officials say is the industry's widespread "discrimination" against people with pre-existing conditions.

The memo, Coverage Denied: How the Current Health Insurance System Leaves Millions Behind, is slightly longer than a typical press release, but it is striking for a confrontational tone that–for the most part–has not been seen in government advocacy reports since the heyday of Big Tobacco.

The report cites a 2007 Commonwealth Fund Biennial Health Insurance Survey, which found that 12.6 million non-elderly adults–36% of those who tried to buy insurance on the private market–were discriminated against in the past three years because an insurance company said they had a pre-existing condition, charged them a higher premium, or refused to cover their condition. Another Commonwealth Fund survey this year found 1 in 10 people with cancer said they could not get health coverage, and 6% said they lost their coverage because of their diagnosis, the HHS memo stated.

"The insurance company practice of denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions is not confined to serious diseases," the HHS report stated. "Even minor problems such as hay fever could trigger prohibitive responses. An insurer could charge high premiums, deny coverage, or set a restriction such as denying any respiratory disease coverage to a person with hay fever."

As if taking a page from the script of Sicko, the Micheal Moore screed against the private health insurance industry, the HHS memo also included personal testimonials from people whose lives were destroyed when their health insurance coverage was dropped after they or their family became seriously ill.

The biggest point of contention between the White House and the health insurance industry is the Obama administration's call for a public plan to compete with private insurers, which the president has said is needed to keep private insurers "honest." The industry says a public plan would have inherent cost advantages over the private sector in areas like advertising and marketing, and physician reimbursement, and would drive private insurers out of business.

"Our concern is the government run plan, which has been the subject of a lot of concern over the country in the last few weeks," says Alissa Fox, senior vice president for policy and representation at the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association. "We think that is a huge diversion. We want Congress to drop the government run plan. We want them to include insurance reforms and other actions to make sure everyone is covered and costs are reined in."

The HHS talking points memo comes as the Obama administration steps up efforts to bolster sagging support for healthcare reform. White House officials reportedly fear that opponents of healthcare reform are controlling the message. In late July, President Obama began referring to "insurance reform," rather than healthcare reform, to better tap into perceived widespread public resentment toward health insurance companies. Two weeks ago, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told a room full of reporters that the health insurance companies were the "villains" in the healthcare reform debate.

America's Health Insurance Plans President and CEO Karen Ignagni–who last week complained of attempts to "demonize" her industry—today took issue with the HHS report and insisted that her industry is leading reform efforts.

"Health plans last year proposed health insurance reform to make sure that no one is denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition," Ignagni says. "Our proposal includes new consumer protections and market rules to guarantee coverage for pre-existing conditions, discontinue basing premiums on a person's health status or gender, and get everyone covered through a personal coverage requirement."

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