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Akron Univ. School of Law

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Doctors and Insurance Companies and Confidentiality of Your Health Information

The LA Times reports on doctors in California refusing to comply with a request from Blue Cross of California that they provide information on a patient's pre-existing condition. Lisa Girion writes,

The state's largest for-profit health insurer is asking

California

physicians to look for conditions it can use to cancel their new patients' medical coverage.  Blue Cross of California is sending physicians copies of health insurance applications filled out by new patients, along with a letter advising them that the company has a right to drop members who fail to disclose "material medical history," including "pre-existing pregnancies."   

Any condition not listed on the application that is discovered to be pre-existing should be reported to Blue Cross immediately," the letters say. The Times obtained a copy of a letter that was aimed at physicians in large medical groups.   

The letter wasn't going down well with physicians. "We're outraged that they are asking doctors to violate the sacred trust of patients to rat them out for medical information that patients would expect their doctors to handle with the utmost secrecy and confidentiality," said Dr. Richard Frankenstein, president of the California Medical Assn. 

Patients "will stop telling their doctors anything they think might be a problem for their insurance and they don't think matters for their current health situation," he said. "But they didn't go to medical school, and there are all kinds of obscure things that could be very helpful to a doctor." 

WellPoint Inc., the Indianapolis-based company that operates Blue Cross of California, said Monday that it was sending out the letters in an effort to hold down costs. "Enrolling an applicant who did not disclose their true condition (and the condition is chronic or acute), will quickly drive increased utilization of services, which drives up costs for all members," WellPoint spokeswoman Shannon Troughton said in an e-mail. . . .

The California Medical Assn. sent a letter to state regulators Friday urging them to order Blue Cross to stop asking doctors for the patient information, saying it was "deeply disturbing, unlawful, and interferes with the physician-patient relationship." . . .

Lynne Randolph, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Managed Health Care, said the agency would review the letter. Blue Cross is fighting a $1-million fine the department imposed in March over alleged systemic problems the agency identified in the way the company rescinds coverage.  A spokesman for state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner said the Insurance Department had not received any complaints about Blue Cross' letter. But because the medical association had sent a copy of its complaint to the department, the letter is "on our radar now," spokesman Byron Tucker said.

The letter is "extremely troubling on several fronts," Tucker said. "It really obliterates the line between underwriting and medical care. It is the insurer's job to underwrite their policies, not the doctors'. Doctors deliver medical care. Their job is not to underwrite policies for insurers."

Anthony Wright

, executive director of HealthAccess California, a healthcare advocacy organization, said the letter had put physicians in the "disturbing" position of having to weigh their patients' interests against a directive from the company that, in many cases, pays most of their bills.

"They are playing a game of 'gotcha' where they are trying to use their doctors against their patients' health interests," Wright said. "That's about as ugly as it gets."

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