Health Insurer Targets HIV Patients To Drop Them

Our very own Murray Waas broke the story:

In May, 2002, Jerome Mitchell, a 17-year old college freshman from rural South Carolina, learned he had contracted HIV. The news, of course, was devastating, but Mitchell believed that he had one thing going for him: On his own initiative, in anticipation of his first year in college, he had purchased his own health insurance.

Shortly after his diagnosis, however, his insurance company, Fortis, revoked his policy. Mitchell was told that without further treatment his HIV would become full-blown AIDS within a year or two and he would most likely die within two years after that.

So he hired an attorney -- not because he wanted to sue anyone; on the contrary, the shy African-American teenager expected his insurance was canceled by mistake and would be reinstated once he set the company straight.

But Fortis, now known as Assurant Health, ignored his attorney's letters, as they had earlier inquiries from a case worker at a local clinic who was helping him. So Mitchell sued.

In 2004, a jury in Florence County, South Carolina, ordered Assurant Health, part of Assurant Inc, to pay Mitchell $15 million for wrongly revoking his heath insurance policy. In September 2009, the South Carolina Supreme Court upheld the lower court's verdict, although the court reduced the amount to be paid him to $10 million.

By winning the verdict against Fortis, Mitchell not only obtained a measure of justice for himself; he also helped expose wrongdoing on the part of Fortis that could have repercussions for the entire health insurance industry.

It turned out that Fortis/Assurant had a policy of targeting every customer with an HIV diagnosis for a fraud investigation where the company would search for any pretext to drop the policy.

Rescission--or the practice of dropping insurance policies at the time when customers need them, namely, when they become ill--is widespread and insurance companies are unapologetic for doing so.

An investigation by the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations showed that health insurers WellPoint Inc., UnitedHealth Group and Assurant Inc. canceled the coverage of more than 20,000 people, allowing the companies to avoid paying more than $300 million in medical claims over a five-year period.

It also found that policyholders with breast cancer, lymphoma and more than 1,000 other conditions were targeted for rescission and that employees were praised in performance reviews for terminating the policies of customers with expensive illnesses.

Nevertheless, the judges involved in this case called Assurant/Fortis' actions in targeting specifically HIV patients "reprehensible." It is also a policy that will end with the health care reform bill.

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