WellPoint Targets Breast Cancer Patients, Drop Their Coverage

Insurance company WellPoint draws fire for targeting breast cancer patients to drop their coverage, but can anyone stop them?

In another sign that healthcare reform may not be the panacea we were hoping for in guaranteeing access to health care for everyone, a recent Reuters report reveals that insurer WellPoint has been systematically targeting recent breast cancer patients and dropping them from insurance coverage.  This practice, known as rescission, was one that was supposed to be addressed in the healthcare overhaul recently signed into law.  Sadly, it seems that legislation forgot to provide any real enforcement.

Many critics worry the new law will not lead to an end of these practices. Some state and federal regulators — as well as investigators, congressional staffers and academic experts — say the health care legislation lacks teeth, at least in terms of enforcement or regulatory powers to either stop or even substantially reduce rescission.

“People have this idea that someone is going to flip a switch and rescission and other bad insurance practices are going to end,” says Peter Harbage, a former health care adviser to the Clinton administration. “Insurers will find ways to undermine the protections in the new law, just as they did with the old law. Enforcement is the key.”

During the recent legislative process for the reform law, however, lobbyists for WellPoint and other top insurance companies successfully fought proposed provisions of the legislation. In particular, they complained about rules that would have made it more difficult for the companies to fairly — or unfairly — cancel policyholders.

For example, an early version of the health care bill passed by the House of Representatives would have created a Federal Office of Health Insurance Oversight to monitor and regulate insurance practices like rescission. WellPoint lobbyists pressed for the proposed agency to not be included in the final bill signed into law by the president.

They also helped quash proposed provisions that would have required a third party review of its or any other insurance company’s decision to cancel a customer’s policy.

As Firedog Lake reports, it wasn’t just a matter of WellPoint lobbyists influencing the bill, but writing it, too.

As Marcy Wheeler reported last year, the Senate Finance Committee bill was written by former Wellpoint VP Liz Fowler, who left her position at the insurance company in February 2009 expressly for the purpose of  working on Senate committee drafting the health care bill:

And when Max Baucus did a “victory lap” after the bill’s passage, he expressly thanked Fowler for her work:

I wish to single out one person, and that one person is sitting next to me. Her name is Liz Fowler. Liz Fowler is my chief health counsel. Liz Fowler has put my health care team together. Liz Fowler worked for me many years ago, left for the private sector, and then came back when she realized she could be there at the creation of health care reform because she wanted that to be, in a certain sense, her profession lifetime goal. She put together the White Paper last November–2008–the 87-page document which became the basis, the foundation, the blueprint from which almost all health care measures in all bills on both sides of the aisle came. She is an amazing person. She is a lawyer; she is a Ph.D. She is just so decent. She is always smiling, she is always working, always available to help any Senator, any staff. I thank Liz from the bottom of my heart. In many ways, she typifies, she represents all of the people who have worked so hard to make this bill such a great accomplishment.

Susan Bayh, wife of Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, is on the Wellpoint board.  Bayh threatened to join Joe Lieberman in a filibuster of the health care bill if a public option was included, something that would very much threaten Wellpoint profits — which have soared in the past year.   Susan Bayh’s compensation for her role on the Wellpoint board includes valuable stock options.

The fact that the health care bill was written by Wellpoint for the benefit of Wellpoint is bad enough. The fact that Max Baucus celebrates that fact is worse.  And the fact that Wellpoint jammed it through with the help of Evan Bayh, who is adding to his personal fortune at the expense of breast cancer patients, is absolutely despicable.

The breast cancer investigation reveals something that many of us have suspected for quite some time: insurance companies hate covering women due to the myriad of costs we can incur, both on our own and because we have families.

“It’s not like these companies don’t like women because they are women,” says Jeff Isaacs, the chief assistant Los Angeles City Attorney who runs the office’s 300-lawyer criminal division. “But there are two things that really scare them and they are breast cancer and pregnancy. Breast cancer can really be a costly thing for them. Pregnancy is right up there too. Their worst-case scenario is that a child will be born with some disability and they will have to pay for that child’s treatment over the course of a lifetime.”

Without real regulation in reform, it looks like women are being thrown under the bus twice.  Once, by compromises of our reproductive rights to pass a bill (a now-routine “compromise”), and then again by being subjec tto continued punishment by insurers just for being women.