The Momentum of Health Care Reform: UnitedHealth Maintains Consumer Protections

Building a Smarter German-American Partnership

As consumers, insurance companies, and the federal government await the Supreme Court’s ruling on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), one health insurance provider has stepped up to the plate and promised to maintain some of the law’s consumer protections even if the law is struck down. On June 11, the UnitedHealth Group announced that it would continue provisions related to preventive health care services, coverage of dependents up to age 26, lifetime policy limits, rescissions, and appeals regardless of the court’s ruling. UnitedHealth’s decision indicates that the health reform law, even if the court strikes down its major provisions, has successfully added momentum to consumer protection efforts in the health care field.

UnitedHealth has long taken an ambivalent stance toward the law. On the one hand, the company’s president and CEO, Stephen J. Hemsley, stated in 2010 that, “UnitedHealth Group is committed to ensuring that expanded access to quality care for millions of Americans is achieved and sustained over time,” expressing support for reforms meant to expand coverage and quality. In the same statement, however, Hemsley commented that his company remained “concerned that any advances under the new law will be eroded by the unchecked rise of health care costs that were not adequately addressed in the legislation.” In other words, though the company supports the expansion of health care coverage, it doubts the ACA’s effectiveness in driving down cost.

In maintaining the law’s provisions, UnitedHealth maintained its ambivalent position vis-à-vis the reform. The reforms the company has chosen to uphold, while popular, are relatively inexpensive, reflecting UnitedHealth’s willingness to adopt consumer-friendly policies within the market status quo. Notably, the company announced that it would not take the unilateral step of ending the denial of children based on preexisting conditions; while the company announced its willingness to work with other insurers to end the practice, it would not do so alone. In its reluctance to adopt the reform unilaterally, UnitedHealth underlines the very difficulty of incremental health care reform which provided the impetus for the ACA. It is difficult to imagine sweeping health reform from within the market if the market’s basic premises remain unchanged.

Although UnitedHealth’s announcement leaves untouched the key components of the ACA, such as the individual mandate to buy health insurance, the mandate on employers to provide health insurance, the establishment of health exchanges, and bans on denying children coverage based on preexisting conditions, it does reflect the momentum of those ACA reforms already implemented. By continuing those policy changes it had already made, the industry-leading insurer has reinforced health care reform from within the insurance market.

The Supreme Court is expected to announce a decision on the ACA in the last two weeks of June.