Pulling the Plug on the Real Death Panels

Following on the subject of how science and medical reporting in the United States has turned into press release rewriting, when was the last time you heard any reporter discussing the actual “death panels” in the U.S. health care system?

In all the hubbub over Mitt Romney’s pledge to repeal so called O’Bamacare (which was based on Romney’s health care reform law he passed as Governor of Massachusetts), have you even heard the mention of “rescission committees?”

Probably not.  It’s not something that “polite” news media are inclined to discuss. It makes some people uncomfortable — namely some important advertisers.

Rescission committees are panels of experts employed by most health insurance companies to comb through all the health records they can find for patients needing very expensive treatment. Their goal is to find any health problem the patients failed to note in their insurance applications so that their policies can be cancelled. These committees are about as heartless a bunch of Scrooges as you can find. They’ll drop a patient needing heart surgery because she failed to note she received treatment for acne when she was a teenager faster than you can say “Bah! Humbug!” Usually, with little fear of being sued, since the patient will likely be too busy fighting for his or her life to take anyone to court.

Medicare and Medicaid have no “rescission committees” that search through  old medical records looking for excuses to “pull the plug” on patients needing expensive treatments. Under Medicare and Medicaid, no patient is denied coverage because of any preexisting medical condition. The parts of Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that are now in effect have already made it harder for health insurance companies to deny patients coverage and treatment due to any past or current health problem.

Mitt Romney has signed a pledge to revoke the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and restore the rights of the insurance industry to keep their rescission committees to help squeeze as much profit as possible from the American people.  I wrote this op-ed for the Buffalo News almost three years ago.  Have you even heard the term rescission committee?”  That’s what I thought.

Pulling the Plug on the Real Death Squads

©2009 Andrew A. Skolnick

Buffalo News

Another Voice Editorial Section

September 24, 2009


Last week, South Carolina’s Supreme Court ordered a health insurance company to pay $10 million for revoking the insurance policy of a 17-year-old student after he tested positive for the AIDS virus.

In 2001, Jerome Mitchell donated blood and was shocked to discover he was HIV-positive. Fortis Insurance Co. canceled his policy leaving him unable to pay for the medical care he urgently needed.

Calling the company’s actions “highly reprehensible,” Chief Justice Toal wrote: “Fortis demonstrated an indifference to Mitchell’s life and a reckless disregard to his health and safety.” The company’s egregious conduct did not just cause Mitchell economic harm, she noted, it “exposed him to great risk of physical danger.”

The court awarded Mitchell $150,000 in actual damages and $10 million in punitive damages setting a new record for judgments against a healthcare insurance company for such egregious conduct. 1

The previous record was set in February 2008, when a Los Angeles arbitration judge ordered Health Net, Inc. to pay Patsy Bates more than $9 million for revoking her health insurance after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The 52-year-old grandmother was unable to continue chemotherapy for 5 months while her cancer grew.2

Such reprehensible decisions are made everyday by insurance company “rescission committees,” These are the actual “death panels” deciding the fate of grandmothers. President Obama’s plan for healthcare reform calls for shutting them down. If his plan is approved, these committees will no longer be allowed to deny healthcare to thousands of Americans every year.

However, these panels have well-financed, powerful friends in Washington. Congressman Chris Lee (R-NY26), for example, not only opposes the president’s reform plan, he co-sponsored a bill that would bar government regulation of health insurance companies. He ironically called his Trojan horse bill the “Medical Rights Reform Act.”3

Unless stopped by law, insurance company death panels will continue to operate. Large court judgments are just a cost of doing business. During the eight years it took Jerome Mitchell to get this judgment, his insurance company reaped millions more by denying care to others. Last June, a Congressional committee found that Fortis, now known as Assurant, and two other companies alone saved more than $300 million over five years by dropping policy holders when they became ill.

These death panels can operate at ghoulish speed, as shown by the evidence Fortis tried to keep from the jury. During the two hours its rescission committee met to rescind Mitchell’s policy, it also dumped 45 other policy holders – which means it spent no more than 3 minutes in deciding to rescind the HIV-infected student’s insurance, the court concluded.

The death toll from the inability of millions of Americans to obtain and keep affordable healthcare insurance is unconscionable. A study published Thursday in the American Journal of Public Health estimates that lack of health insurance caused nearly 45,000 excess deaths in the United States in 2005, with more than 2250 of those deaths in NY State.

This national tragedy should shock us to the bone when we realize that every year 15 times as many Americans die, because they can’t get medical insurance, than were killed by terrorists on 911.

On election day next year, voters should remember which candidates chose to protect insurance company profits over the health of millions of Americans – and vote accordingly.

Andrew Skolnick, a resident of Amherst, NY, covered President Clinton’s failed health care reform effort in the 1990s as an associate news editor for the Journal of the American Medical Association.



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