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The insurance companies' preexisting condition: heartlessness

August 21, 2009 | 12:09 pm

HealthWe've all seen the images that testify to the increasing heatedness of the healthcare debate: pictures of   people bringing their heaters, 9 mms and AR-15s to town hall meetings. Toting your assault rifle in public seems a little over the top, but as long as the 2nd Amendment exists and the gun owners are complying with local law, it is their right to pack heat -- and I have the right to call them overcompensating wackos.

The extreme pressure from the right has even led President Obama to backpedal from his insistence on a public option. "The public option, whether we have it or we don't have it, is not the entirety of healthcare reform," Obama said at a town hall meeting in Colorado last Saturday.

For many of the low-income voters who made their $5 contribution to Obama's campaign and strolled out to the polls last November to elect their champion for reform, the president's retreat can't be good news. But how much can you fight back when a handful of your rivals are showing up to the debate with guns?

While the tug-of-war over what role a public option should take will not come to a head any time soon, both sides can agree that some degree of reform is necessary because the status quo is unacceptable.

One of the most egregious practices in the current system is insurance companies denying coverage because of a preexisting condition. The insurance companies say rescinding coverage, even for those who are gravely ill and in most need of medical treatment, keeps costs lower, deters fraud and gets more people the treatment they need more quickly. The practice of occasional rescission allows insurers to only have to do "random" background checks as opposed to poring over all medical records. So they say.

Yet too often the patients being retroactively denied healthcare are those in most need. Insurance companies quote the infinitesimally small one-half of 1% of people who face rescission each year to prove their point. But when you cover hundreds of millions of people, less than 1% is still a lot of individuals. And denying a cancer-stricken woman coverage just days before her surgery (watch the first video below) smacks of cold, hard cost-cutting, not the due diligence insurers say they are doing to save everyone else money. Insurers often claim rescission befalls patients who acted fraudulently. That may be the case for some people -- but the insurer of that poor woman said the same thing in denying her coverage because a doctor she had seen previously scrawled a note on her chart about (wait for it) acne.

Below are the testimonies of three individuals whose insurers denied them desperately needed coverage. They testified in front of a House subcommittee in June. The insurance companies' spokesmen responded despondently to the testimonies with a promise to do not much else than look into the situation. No one should have expected much more; after all, the insurance companies came in with a preexisting condition: heartlessness.

--Kevin Patra

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