By Landon Hall
Health Reporter, The Orange County Register
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius predicts an "ongoing hand-to-hand combat" with health insurers over elements of the new sweeping health care legislation.
Speaking at the annual Association of Health Care Journalists conference in Chicago on Thursday, Sebelius singled out WellPoint, the nation's largest health insurer. Earlier in the day, Reuters had reported that the company used a computer algorithm to routinely single out women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer in order to cancel their policies.
If the allegation is true, Sebelius said, "this pattern is, frankly, reprehensible." In a letter to WellPoint CEO Angela Braly, she noted that the practice of rescinding policies except on the basis of fraud will become illegal in September, six months after the law took effect. "WellPoint should not wait to end the unconscionable practice of deliberately working to deny health insurance coverage to women diagnosed with breast cancer," Sebelius wrote. "I urge you to immediately cease these practices and abandon your efforts to rescind health insurance coverage from patients who need it most.
WellPoint responded with a statement calling the Reuters report untrue, and that it actually works to prevent cancer and get patients into treatment.
Sebelius said a challenge going forward in implementing the health care law – with some provisions going into effect in September but others not until 2014 – is countering the "misinformation" sowed by critics. The challenge, she said, "is to very quickly become the ‘help desk' of America."
She noted that soon after President Obama signed the bill into law, some insurers had claimed they had found a loophole allowing them to sidestep a provision beginning in 2010 that would prohibit denying children on the basis of preexisting conditions. HHS pushed back, Sebelius said, and "within 24 hours" talk of such a loophole evaporated.
"Unfortunately, that's going to be an ongoing hand-to-hand combat" in countering future resistance to the elements of the law, she said.
Thomas Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also addressed conference attendees, presenting a newly issued report outlining the states' progress in fighting smoking. The report, subtitled "The Good, the Bad and the Improving," said national smoking rates had leveled off after years of declines. Frieden urged states to step up funding of anti-smoking ads, sales tax on cigarettes and "help lines" for smokers who want to quit.
Frieden, who came to his CDC post last year after leading New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said a combination of high taxes and hard-hitting, graphic ads to push adult smoking rates in the city from 18.9 percent to 15.8 percent in recent years, after an uptick had threatened to undermine years' worth of progress.
One such ad showed a man who had lost his vocal chords to cancer going through his day, taking care of the hole in his throat and speaking through a vibrating device held against his neck.
New York smokers who didn't respond to hard facts "really didn't like seeing how disfiguring or disabling smoking could be."
Utah and California have the lowest rates of adult smokers (9.3 percent and 14 percent), while West Virginia (26.5 percent) and Indiana (26) have the lowest, according to the report. Frieden also urged states to spend more of the money raised by cigarette taxes on prevention programs.
"Tobacco addiction is difficult to beat but not impossible," Frieden said. "People don't need to wait until their first heart attack to quit smoking."