Buyer beware, indeed…

Our efforts to reform the individual insurance market got more attention this week, by John Howard in the Capitol Weekly and Aurelio Rojas in the Sacramento Bee, which both profiled SB1522, by Senator Darrell Steinberg, and sponsored by Health Access California.

SB1522 passsed the Assembly Health Committee this week, and is now pending in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

The Bee has the story of the Mary McCurnin and Ron Bednar of Rancho Cordova, who unwittingly bought a plan that the insurer Mid-West National Life Insurance Company called “definied benefit” coverage.

McCurnin and Bednar said they paid a monthly premium of $600 for what they thought was comprehensive coverage. But in 2002, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and he had open-heart surgery, they learned otherwise.

Their plan covered only 10 percent of his hospitalization, and the company rescinded her coverage because she didn’t disclose on her application that she was given a prescription for an anti-depressant years ago that she never filled.

With more than $250,000 in medical bills, the couple filed for bankruptcy protection and now face the loss of their home.

“Health insurance companies will do everything they can not to cover you,” McCurnin said. “Having good (individual) health insurance is a myth.”

The wife of the couple was rescinded under that now-infamous practice; the husband got “coverage,” but found it covered only 10% of his costs because the benefit was capped. Examples like this inform consumer advocates’ deep skepticism about the individual insurance market, and any attempt to expand it, as President Bush and now Senator McCain seek to do.

With little bargaining power, the individual consumer trying to get coverage will be at the mercy of the big insurance companies. SB1522 (Steinberg) tries to set some minimum standards in terms of benefits (doctors, hospitals, preventative care), and to place a cap on out-of-pocket costs. Other bills this year deal with rescission, or making sure than premium dollars go to patient care. All are consumer protections that attempt to make the situation a little more fair in an inherently unfair situation.

Even if all passsed, more reform will be needed. Both stories put this bill in the context of reconstructing health reform.

As the Weekly describes it, “Although the governor’s health-care reform plan died this year in the Capitol’s political crossfire, critical pieces have been resurrected and are quietly moving through the Legislature. One of the most important–already approved in the Senate and opposed by HMOs–would force health insurers to give consumers uniform, clear and accurate descriptions of their policies to aid comparative shopping.”

And in the Bee, Senator Steinberg himself not only makes the clear case for the bill on its merits, and but ends the article making the case that the bill as a foundation for future, and more comprehensive, reform.

“As we move forward to more comprehensive reform in the future, creating confidence that people know what they are buying will be a key element,” he said.

Health Access California promotes quality, affordable health care for all Californians.

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