Papers Show Insurers Limited Coverage for Acne, Pregnancy

By David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 19, 2009

A proposal to make preexisting health conditions irrelevant in the sale of insurance policies could help not just the seriously ill but also people who might consider themselves healthy, documents released Friday by a California-based advocacy group illustrate.

Health insurers have issued guidelines saying they could deny coverage to people suffering from such conditions as acne, hemorrhoids and bunions.

One big insurer refused to issue individual policies to police officers and firefighters, along with people in other hazardous occupations.

Some treated pregnancy or the intention to adopt as a reason for rejection.

As Congress and President Obama work on legislation to overhaul the nation's health-care system, one of their main objectives is to stop insurers from denying coverage on the basis of health status. Proposed legislation would prohibit insurers from denying coverage to individuals with preexisting conditions or charging them higher premiums because of their medical history -- practices known as medical underwriting.

Even the insurance lobby has endorsed that goal as part of a larger reform package in which the government would extend coverage to the uninsured, greatly expanding the market for insurance.

Guidelines that insurance companies have written for professionals involved in selling policies offer a glimpse inside the underwriting process.

"What these documents show is the lengths to which insurance companies are willing to go to make a profit," said Jerry Flanagan, health-care policy director of the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, which distributed the documents Friday. "What it shows is that insurance companies want premiums without any risk."

Consumer Watchdog argues that consumers should be given the option of enrolling in a government-run health plan. It obtained the documents from a California insurance broker, Flanagan said.

A PacifiCare "Medical Underwriting Guidelines" document from 2003 lists under "Ineligible Occupations" such risk-takers as stunt people, test pilots and circus workers -- along with police officers, firefighters and migrant workers.

Uninsurable conditions included pregnancy, and being an "expectant father" was grounds for "automatic rejection." So was having received "therapy/counseling" within six months of the application. There was also this more general disqualifier: "currently experiencing/experienced within the last 12 months symptoms for which a physician has not been consulted."

The PacifiCare document "is completely outdated and predates the acquisition of PacifiCare by United Healthcare," Cheryl J. Randolph, a spokeswoman for the parent company, said by e-mail. She declined to provide current underwriting documents.

"Underwriting enables insurers to adequately assess risks, keeping premium costs lower for more consumers," she added.

Health Net guidelines for 2006 say that people could be denied coverage or charged higher premiums if they were taking certain medications, including Zyrtec, an allergy remedy, and Lamisil, which is widely advertised as a treatment for toenail fungus.

Pregnant women could be rejected, as could expectant fathers, the document said.

A Health Net spokeswoman did not respond to requests to comment.

Blue Cross of California guidelines for 2004 said potential disqualifiers included chronic tonsillitis and, under certain circumstances, varicose veins.

Kristin E. Binns, a spokeswoman for parent company WellPoint, said by e-mail that she could not comment on the guidelines because they are from years ago.

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