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Major insurer pledges to maintain health law's consumer protections

UnitedHealth Group, the nation's second-largest health insurer, said Monday that it will voluntarily maintain and extend consumer protection provisions in the federal health care reform law even if the Supreme Court rules against the law's constitutionality in other areas.

The Minnetonka, Minn.-based health insurer said it will continue provisions in the Affordable Care Act of 2010 that provide for coverage of preventive health care services with no copay. That includes yearly preventive doctor's visits, screening for high blood pressure and diabetes, and standard immunizations.

The insurer will also maintain coverage of dependents up to age 26, regardless of their eligibility for other insurance coverage, including for those who are not in school, who are not dependents on their parents' tax returns and who are married.

It will also continue to bar lifetime dollar limits on policies and will not rescind individual coverage except in cases of fraud, misrepresentation or failure to pay premiums. And it will make sure consumers have a simple and timely option to appeal decisions.

However, the insurer said it cannot act alone in continuing to cover children up to age 19 with pre-existing conditions, though it "recognizes the value" of that. "UnitedHealthcare is committed to working with all other participants in the health care system to sustain that coverage," the company said.

The move will put pressure on rival insurers to follow suit, and it may offer some clarity to consumers worried about how the court's ruling could affect them. The Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of President Obama's Affordable Care Act and is expected to rule on it this month.

Aetna, the third-largest health insurer by market value, said Monday it also would cover preventive services, let young adults stay on parents' plans and continue outside reviews of coverage denial appeals.

Another insurer, Kentucky-based Humana Inc., said Monday it would maintain various coverage provisions, all of which match UnitedHealth's pledge.

"The protections we are voluntarily extending are good for people's health, promote broader access to quality care and contribute to helping control rising health care costs," UnitedHealth's CEO, Stephen J. Hemsley, said in a release. "These provisions make sense for the people we serve, and it is important to ensure they know these provisions will continue."

Locally, Williamsville-based Independent Health Association said it has provided many of the same protections and benefits since even before the federal reforms were passed, and Independent says it was among the first health plans nationwide to cover preventive services with no copay.

"These are basic quality coverage practices we've had in effect for years, and regardless of the Supreme Court's decision, we will continue to offer these provisions and will continue to look for opportunities to improve the quality and affordability of health care for our community," said Independent Health spokesman Frank Sava.

The national Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association -- which represents 38 plans across the country, including HealthNow New York's BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York and the Rochester-based parent of Univera Healthcare -- said it's "encouraging" that its members plan "to offer their customers the broadest set of protections possible at an affordable price."

Univera spokesman Peter Kates noted that the protections cited by UnitedHealthcare are either "a continuation of long-standing practice by our health plan or as a matter of state law."

News wire services contributed to this story.