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Time to pull the plug on the real death panels

Last week, South Carolina's Supreme Court ordered a health insurance company to pay $10 million for revoking the insurance policy of a 17-year-old student after he tested positive for the AIDS virus. In 2001, Jerome Mitchell donated blood and was shocked to discover he was HIV-positive. Fortis Insurance Co. canceled his policy, leaving him unable to pay for the medical care he urgently needed.

Calling the company's actions "highly reprehensible," Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal wrote: "Fortis demonstrated an indifference to Mitchell's life and a reckless disregard to his health and safety." The court awarded Mitchell $150,000 in actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages setting a new record for judgments against a health care insurance company.

Such reprehensible decisions are made every day by insurance company "rescission committees." These are the actual "death panels" deciding the fate of grandmothers. President Obama's plan for health care reform calls for shutting them down.

However, these panels have well-financed, powerful friends in Washington. Rep. Chris Lee, R-Clarence, for example, not only opposes the president's reform plan, he co-sponsored a bill that would bar government regulation of health insurance companies. He ironically called his Trojan horse bill the Medical Rights Reform Act.

Unless stopped by law, insurance company death panels will continue to operate. Large court judgments are just a cost of doing business. Last June, a congressional committee found that Fortis, now known as Assurant, and two other companies alone saved more than $300 million over five years by dropping policy holders when they became ill.

These death panels can operate at ghoulish speed, as shown by the evidence Fortis tried to keep from the jury. During the two hours its rescission committee met to rescind Mitchell's policy, it also dumped 45 other policy holders, which means it spent no more than three minutes in deciding to rescind the HIV-infected student's insurance, the court concluded.

The death toll from the inability of millions of Americans to obtain and keep affordable health insurance is unconscionable. An Institutes of Medicine report in 2004 estimated that "lack of health insurance causes roughly 18,000 unnecessary deaths every year in the United States."

This national tragedy should shock us to the bone when we realize that every year, six times as many Americans die because they can't get medical insurance than were killed by terrorists on 9/1 1.

On election day next year, voters should remember which candidates chose to protect insurance company profits over the health of millions of Americans -- and vote accordingly.

Andrew Skolnick of Amherst was an associate news editor for the Journal of the American Medical Association in the 1990s, and covered President Clinton's failed effort to reform health care.

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