Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on the federal healthcare law, the nation's largest health insurer said it would continue to honor some of the law's more popular provisions, including preventive screenings at no cost and the elimination of lifetime limits on medical care.
This move by UnitedHealth Group Inc., which has nearly 36 million customers nationwide, is expected to pressure 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.
"My hat's off to UnitedHealth for stepping up and challenging other health insurers to follow its lead," said Arthur Kellermann, a physician and director of Rand Health, a nonprofit research group in Santa Monica. "I think this reflects the growing awareness we have to address the cost, accessibility and quality of American healthcare — regardless of how the Supreme Court rules."
UnitedHealth said it would continue to offer preventive services, such as annual physicals, colonoscopies, mammograms and screenings for diabetes and high blood pressure without a co-pay or other cost sharing. The Minnetonka, Minn., company also said it would continue to allow parents to enroll their children up to age 26 on their health plans and eliminate lifetime dollar limits on medical care.
"The protections we are voluntarily extending are good for people's health, promote broader access to quality care and contribute to helping control rising healthcare costs," said Stephen Hemsley, chief executive of UnitedHealth.
Much like hospitals and doctors, insurers have been taking a wait-and-see approach on the court's ruling, particularly because depending on how the court rules there could be many different scenarios. As a result, consumer advocates say there is much confusion among policyholders over their health benefits and rights.
Consumer groups welcomed UnitedHealth's announcement, but they said it's no substitute for the healthcare law in its entirety.
"This is no replacement for the bedrock security of having these consumer protections in the law," said Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, a consumer advocacy group. "Insurers should not get to choose what laws they abide with."
UnitedHealth said it's supportive of the federal requirement that guarantees coverage to children under age 19 regardless of preexisting medical conditions. But the company said it couldn't commit to that requirement without industrywide agreement. It declined to endorse other parts of the federal law, including more rigorous rate review and rebates.
Some states, including California, have passed their own laws requiring guaranteed coverage for children and allowing young adults to remain on their parents' policies.