Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is urging the insurance behemoth WellPoint to immediately end its practice of dropping health insurance coverage for women with breast cancer, after Reuters reported that the company specifically targeted women with breast cancer for aggressive investigation with the intent to cancel their policies.
In a letter to WellPoint, Sibelius said the new signed Affordable Care Act will ban such rescissions, except in cases of blatant misrepresentation or fraud, beginning this fall.
The women -- from Texas, California and Kentucky -- learned one after another, shortly after a diagnosis of breast cancer, that her health insurance had been canceled.
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.
First there was Yenny Hsu, who lived and worked in Los Angeles. Later, Robin Beaton, a registered nurse from Texas. And then, most recently, Patricia Relling, a successful art gallery owner and interior designer from Louisville, Ky.
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.
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.
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 insurance shortly after being diagnosed with life-threatening, expensive medical conditions has been documented by law enforcement agencies, state regulators and a congressional committee. Last year a congressional committee said WellPoint was one of the worst offenders.
Prominent in New York State is WellPoint-connected Empire BlueCross BlueShield.
In his push for the health care bill, President Barack Obama said the legislation would end such industry practices. Making the case for reform in a September address to Congress, Obama cited the cancellation of Beaton's health insurance. Aides to the president told Reuters no one in the White House knew WellPoint was systematically singling out breast cancer patients like her.