Insurance Company Bad Faith: Wellpoint Targets Breast Cancer Patients for Cancelation
WellPoint routinely targets breast cancer patients
One after another, shortly after a diagnosis of breast cancer, each of the women learned that her health insurance had been canceled. First there was Yenny Hsu, who lived and worked in Los Angeles. Later, Robin Beaton, a registered nurse from Texas. And then, most recently, there was Patricia Relling, a successful art gallery owner and interior designer from Louisville, Kentucky. None of the women knew about the others. But besides their similar narratives, they had something else in common: Their health insurance carriers were subsidiaries of WellPoint, which has 33.7 million policyholders -- more than any other health insurance company in the United States. The women all paid their premiums on time. Before they fell ill, none had any problems with their insurance. Initially, they believed their policies had been canceled by mistake.
They had no idea that WellPoint was using a computer algorithm that automatically targeted them and every other policyholder recently diagnosed with breast cancer. The software triggered an immediate fraud investigation, as the company searched for some pretext to drop their policies, according to government regulators and investigators. Once the women were singled out, they say, the insurer then canceled their policies based on either erroneous or flimsy information. WellPoint declined to comment on the women's specific cases without a signed waiver from them, citing privacy laws. That tens of thousands of Americans lost their health insurance shortly after being diagnosed with life-threatening, expensive medical conditions has been well documented by law enforcement agencies, state regulators and a congressional committee. Insurance companies have used the practice, known as "rescission," for years. And a congressional committee last year said WellPoint was one of the worst offenders. But WellPoint also has specifically targeted women with breast cancer for aggressive investigation with the intent to cancel their policies, federal investigators told Reuters. The revelation is especially striking for a company whose CEO and president, Angela Braly, has earned plaudits for how her company improved the medical care and treatment of other policyholders with breast cancer. The disclosures come to light after a recent investigation by Reuters showed that another health insurance company, Assurant Health, similarly targeted HIV-positive policyholders for rescission. That company was ordered by courts to pay millions of dollars in settlements. "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." In a statement to Reuters, WellPoint said various specified criteria trigger rescission investigations, including certain types of medical claims. The company said it changed its rescission practices to ensure they are handled appropriately after a 2006 review of its policies prompted by public concern over rescission. WellPoint also said it created a committee that includes a physician for making rescission decisions. The company also noted that it established a single point of contact for members undergoing an investigation and enacted an appeals process for applicants who disagree with the original determination. 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. 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. Victoria Veltri, the general counsel of Connecticut's Office of Healthcare Advocate, a state agency that investigates complaints by policyholders, says she has seen the success of such a process in her home state. One company, Aetna, has voluntarily agreed to engage in the third party review, with what she described as favorable results. "I haven't seen an Aetna case in our office since they went to the third party review process," she said. "It's a powerful tool to have a third set of eyes required before someone is rescinded." INSURERS' ANATHEMA: BREAST CANCER AND PREGNANCY The cancellation of her health insurance in June 2008 forced Robin Beaton to delay cancer surgery by five months. In that time, the tumor in her breast grew from 2 centimeters to 7 centimeters. Two months before Beaton's policy was dropped, Patricia Relling also was diagnosed with breast cancer. Anthem Blue Cross of Kentucky, a WellPoint subsidiary, paid the bills for a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. But the following January, after Relling suffered a life-threatening staph infection requiring two emergency surgeries in three days, Anthem balked and refused to pay more. They soon canceled her insurance entirely. Unable to afford additional necessary surgeries for nearly 16 months, Relling ended up severely disabled and largely confined to her home. As a result of her crushing medical bills, the once well-to-do businesswoman is now dependent on food stamps. "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. Isaacs is a former federal prosecutor who spent much of his time with the U.S. Justice Department investigating corporate wrongdoing. Among state and federal regulators, he is now considered one of the toughest and most experienced foes of the health insurance industry. He has hired retired FBI agents to investigate full-time the practices of WellPoint and its Anthem Blue Cross subsidiary in California. Still, Isaacs feels outgunned: "The industry just has these tremendous financial, legal and political resources that others don't," he said. "In my own state, regulators are often afraid or unwilling to go up against them. It is hard to figure out what the future brings."