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Health plans’ birth control coverage gets state scrutiny

The state Attorney General’s Office is looking into whether the largest health insurance companies in the state, including three in the Buffalo area, are violating the federal Affordable Care Act by charging their members for contraceptive services.

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman sent letters Thursday to HealthNow New York of Buffalo, Independent Health of Amherst, Univera Healthcare of Amherst and seven other insurers seeking information on whether their members must make co-payments or pay any other out-of-pocket costs for their birth control. Health plans are required to provide a full range of Food and Drug Administration-approved contraception methods at no charge to their members.

The letters issued by the Attorney General’s Office and obtained by The Buffalo News say generally that the office has received complaints about insurer practices, but they do not specify which companies were the subjects of the complaints. A source familiar with the investigation said the office either received a complaint or found information in a publicly available document to prompt a inquiry to a particular company.

The letters ask for responses to 10 questions, including whether member cost-sharing is required of any generic contraceptive methods and how many women, if any, have been required to pay part of the cost of their birth control. The office is seeking replies by May 28.

The letter comes shortly after the National Women’s Law Center released a study that looked at plan coverage documents and complaints in 15 states. That report found a number of violations of the Affordable Care Act’s provisions mandating free access to a broad range of women’s health services, including contraception.

The three Buffalo-area insurers acknowledged receiving the letters.

“We will certainly cooperate with the request for information,” Frank J. Sava, a spokesman for Independent Health, said in a statement. “We believe we are in full accordance with the women’s preventive services benefit in the Affordable Care Act.”

Julie R. Snyder, a spokeswoman for HealthNow, which offers coverage in the Buffalo area as BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York and in the Albany area as BlueShield of Northeastern New York, promised a timely response to the letter but said she couldn’t immediately provide details on specifics of the inquiry.

Peter B. Kates, a spokesman for Univera, also said he didn’t have further details late Thursday afternoon.

The other insurers whose policies are under scrutiny from the Attorney General’s Office are: Cigna; Univera parent Excellus BlueCross BlueShield; Empire BlueCross BlueShield; EmblemHealth; Fidelis Care; MVP Health Care; and UnitedHealthcare.