Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hawaii health insurers back state bill attacking patient rights

There is a war going on against Hawaii's middle class, and between what appears to be a virtual media black-out on the subject and a public misinformation campaign, nobody seems to know a thing about it.

At least half a million people in Hawaii who have health insurance are going to lose the right to an effective external appeal of decisions made by their health insurance providers if Hawaii Senate Bill 1274 passes. Health insurance carriers have already admitted publicly to drafting companion legislation, and are increasingly open in their support of 1274.

SB 1274 will repeal HRS 432E-6, which created a state external review process that could intervene when a health insurance company denied medically necessary treatment or medication. The state law creates a local hearing process where both sides can present expert testimony, and decisions are issued by a panel rather than a lone individual.

According to Rafael del Castillo, a Honolulu attorney who specializes in representing clients appealing insurance company decisions under HRS 432E-6, the insurance companies have lost or given up in about eighty percent of these cases.

That means that in eighty percent of the cases, the insurance company denial had nothing to do with medical necessity, just saving the company money.

The Affordable Care Act may have also extended the coverage of HRS 432E-6 to most families with employer-paid health insurance. Del Castillo is seeking confirmation from the Department of Labor.

If Hawaii Senate Bill 1274 passes in any shape or form, the middle class is also going to lose any external review rights they just gained last fall.

SB 1274 came to life very unexpectedly in January, seeming to originate out of the office of the state's newly elected Democratic governor Neil Abercrombie. People were stunned since Abercrombie was assumed to be a pro-consumer rights politician.

At first it had a silent companion bill, S.B. 658, making patients responsible for insurance company legal fees if the patient lost the appeal. Attorneys for Wellcare, a for-profit HMO that makes about $600 million a year from its contract with Hawaii, admitted at a Senate hearing to having drafted the bill. S.B. 658 has been tabled indefinitely ever since.

The latest development is a clause that has been added to S.B. 1274 making it retroactive to January 1. All cases currently in the external review process would be dismissed, which could save the insurance companies as much as $500,000 in legal fees. According to del Castillo, the big winner in the bill going retroactive is UnitedHealth Group, operating in Hawaii as Evercare.

Every health insurance carrier operating in Hawaii is going to benefit if S.B. 1274 is signed: HMSA, Kaiser, HMAA, UHA, Aloha Care, Evercare (UnitedHealth) and Ohana (Wellcare) all benefit from repealing the law that gives their policyholders an effective way to challenge denials of treatment. That gives the insurance carriers free rein in making medical decisions based on operating profit rather than the policyholder's medical needs.

The mis-information campaign is claiming HRS 432E-6 violates new federal regulations and so MUST be repealed. Del Castillo has been working with federal authorities since January on how the existing law can meet new federal regulations with nothing more than a few tweeks, rather than a sledgehammer. According to del Castillo, Hawaii's health insurers continue to push hard to get 1274 passed and are refusing to accept any compromise that preserves the consumer protections we now have. Del Castillo has even received a letter threatening to sue him on behalf of unnamed insurers if he continues providing lawmakers with information about past external review cases consumers have won.

The media blackout on this (with the notable exception of HPR) is fascinating. It is easy for them to dismiss del Castillo's information campaign on 1274 on the basis he is the one to benefit if the current law stays in place. After all, he's the only local lawyer who is willing to represent health care consumers in this external review process. Since del Castillo finances these cases himself until the decision awards him costs, the retroactivity singles him and his clients out for special financial punishment.

Del Castillo says an editor told him years ago that one of the state's big insurance companies had threatened to pull advertising if his cases against them got any media coverage. It is obviously impossible to prove, but it is interesting that all of his advocacy work on behalf of patient rights is ignored, and even when he came in second in last year's Democratic primary race for Congress, never received a word of coverage in any of the major newspapers, TV or radio outlets.

A political candidate who gets 22,000 votes and is completely ignored by all the media is practically a story by itself.

Once upon a time, long ago, Hawaii was known as "the Health State". We had a state law that established a health patient's bill of rights, all the kids had insurance, and employers were required to provide health coverage. For a very short time, even President Obama was linked to his origins from "the Health State."

But about the time Obama came into office, Hawaii's Republican governor turned over seventy percent of the state Medicaid budget to two for-profit insurance carriers, the death rate among the elderly and people with disabilities increased, children had already lost their health coverage, and so the Health State was rather abruptly dismantled.

We can't let the Abercrombie Administration and this Legislature take away our right to an independent review panel when our health insurance company denies us medically necessary coverage. We can’t let lawmakers retroactively repeal rights people relied upon in incurring substantial costs and in seeking denied medical care. It doesn't matter if the company name on your insurance card is HMSA, HMAA, UHC , Kaiser, Aloha Care, Evercare or Ohana, you lose your health patient rights if SB 1274 gets passed.

We all lose.

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I'm the mom of a child with disabilities. Hannah's first neurologist said she might never develop beyond the level of a 2 month old infant, and there wasn't anything I could do about it. The brain damage was just too severe. Nine years later, she walks, uses a touchscreen computer and I've just been shown she can learn to construct sentences and do simple math with the right piece of technology. Along the way, I discovered I needed to teach myself what Hannah's rights to services really were. Learning about early intervention services led to reading about IDEA and then to EPSDT. I've been waiting for the Obama administration to realize the power and potential of EPSDT for the medical rights - including the right to stay at home with their families - of children with disabilities. The health reform people talk about long term care, and the disability people talk about education and employment, but nobody is talking about EPSDT. So I am.