American patients are sick and tired of insurance companies not covering essential care and services. Recently, America’s biggest insurance company, UnitedHealthcare, proposed the most egregious and unjustified policy to scare patients from seeking care altogether.
UnitedHealthcare plans to implement a policy that would retroactively bill patients for the care they received at emergency departments - if the insurer decides the situation was not actually an emergency. This policy will put undue pressure on patients and caretakers who will now have to determine the severity of their medical conditions, of which they are not experts, to determine whether or not they seek care, risking further sickness and even death. If they do decide to go to the emergency room for care, they risk being saddled with the cost of an exorbitant surprise medical bill if UnitedHealthcare disagrees with them and determines it wasn’t, in fact, an emergency.
This policy will affect millions of American patients in 35 states, including my home state of Michigan. What’s worse is this policy will affect the already under-resourced communities in our country. That is why as a part of the Healthcare Equality Network, we sent a letter to President Biden, Congresswoman Beatty, and the Congressional Black Caucus urging them to make sure policies like this one are never implemented.
According to a Journal of Public Health and Emergency study, more than 100 million Americans annually use emergency department services. The study concluded that women use the emergency department 25% more often than males. Black Americans under the age of 65 use the emergency department 10-19% more often than White Americans.
UnitedHealthcare’s policy will affect Black women at an extremely disproportionate rate. We can no longer allow these racist and sexist policies to dictate our health care system.
If we let UnitedHealthcare get away with this, who knows how many other insurance companies will follow. Wendell Potter, a former Cigna executive and now president of Center for Health and Democracy, told Bloomberg Law, “It’ll become the industry standard. Even if you’re not a member of UnitedHealthcare, you should be concerned about this because your insurance company will be likely to follow this at some point.”
We cannot let this policy be implemented by one insurance company, let alone become an industry standard. We have proof that when patients are afraid to seek emergency treatment, there is an increase in bad outcomes. During the COVID-19 pandemic many Americans were not only scared but deterred from going to hospitals and emergency departments for fear of catching and spreading the virus; this fear resulted in more medical emergencies, like heart attacks and strokes, happening away from medical care.
UnitedHealthcare and other insurance companies more than doubled their profits during the pandemic compared to previous years. The New York Times said, “the nation’s leading health insurers are experiencing an embarrassment of profits… although many hospitals have been overwhelmed by the coronavirus outbreaks raging from state to state, insurers have shelled out billions of dollars less in medical claims.”
UnitedHealthcare is attempting to recreate the system of fear that the pandemic had on Americans by intimidating us with surprise medical bills we cannot afford.
Insurance companies are always trying to get out of covering patients’ medical costs by purposefully creating narrow markets, raising deductibles, and by simply refusing to cover services. This new policy will blame and punish patients for seeking care and force them to cover emergency treatments leaving insurance companies to collect more than ever.
Insurance companies’ greed has reached a new level with UnitedHealthcare’s new policy. It should not be on a patient to diagnose whether they are having a heart attack or indigestion. Insurance companies are meant to protect us, but instead, they are using our pain to pad their bottom line. The Frederick Douglass Foundation stands with the Healthcare Equality Network and other advocates speaking against this outrageous and racially biased policy. We hope that lawmakers and decision-makers start to listen.
• Jessica Ann Tyson is President of the Frederick Douglass Foundation Michigan Chapter. Tyson has been listed as one of the Most Influential Women by Grand Rapids Business Journal. She was appointed to Building the 21st Century Economy Commission and Michigan Board of Nursing Department of Licensing & Regulatory Affairs Bureau of Health Care Services by former Governor Rick Snyder in 2014.