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As 'Rescissions' Spawn Outrage, Health Insurers Cite Fraud Control

Sally Marrari, who co-owns R& S Auto in Los Angeles, is trading service on her doctor's Porsche for medical care.
Sally Marrari, who co-owns R& S Auto in Los Angeles, is trading service on her doctor's Porsche for medical care. (By Carlos Puma For The Washington Post)

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By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- The untimely disappearance of Sally Marrari's medical coverage goes a long way toward explaining why insurance companies are cast as the villain in the health-care reform drama.

"They said I never mentioned I had a back problem," said Marrari, 52, whose coverage with Blue Cross was abruptly canceled in 2006 after a thyroid disorder, fluid in the heart and lupus were diagnosed. That left the Los Angeles woman with $25,000 in medical bills and the stigma of the company's claim that she had committed fraud by not listing on a health questionnaire "preexisting conditions" Marrari said she did not know she had.

By the time she filed a lawsuit in 2008, she also got a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and her debts had swelled beyond $200,000. She was able to see a specialist by trading office visits for work on the doctor's 1969 Porsche at the garage she owns with her husband.

"I've had about 10 visits," Marrari said of the barter arrangement that has proved more reliable than her insurance. "The car needs a lot of work."

Rescission -- the technical term for canceling coverage on grounds that the company was misled -- is often considered among the most offensive practices in an insurance industry that already suffers from a distinct lack of popularity among the American public. Tales of cancellations have fueled outrage among regulators, analysts, doctors and, not least, plaintiffs' lawyers, who describe insurers as too eager to shed patients to widen profits.

Those sentiments have become central to the health-care debate, as President Obama tries to tap into dissatisfaction with the insurance industry to build support for reform efforts. Each of the bills pending in Congress would prevent insurers from rejecting clients because of preexisting conditions.

No one claims to know how often policies are canceled -- in large part, congressional investigators say, because insurance companies are regulated by a patchwork of state laws and policies. But the practice is common enough to spur lawsuits and state regulatory action.

In the past 18 months, California's five largest insurers paid almost $19 million in fines for marooning policyholders who had fallen ill. That includes a $1 million fine against Health Net, which admitted offering bonuses to employees for finding reasons to cancel policies, according to company documents released in court.

"This is probably the most egregious of examples of health insurers using their power and their resources to deny benefits to people who are most in need of care," said Gerald Kominski, associate director of the Center for Health Policy Research at the University of California at Los Angeles. "It's really a horrendous activity on the part of the insurers."

Insurance company officials say they need to be able to cancel policies to control fraud, which by some estimates reaches $100 billion annually.

"We do not rescind a policyholder's coverage because someone on the policy gets sick," said Peggy Hinz, a spokeswoman for Anthem Blue Cross, a subsidiary of WellPoint. "We have put in place a thorough process with multiple steps to ensure that we are as fair and as accurate as we can be in making these difficult decisions."

Much of that process was a condition of settlements with state overseers, who fined Blue Cross $11 million over the past two years and required it, and all other major insurers in California, to restore canceled policies. Insurers still face court challenges, including a class-action suit targeting Blue Cross on behalf of 6,000 canceled policyholders.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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