LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
The daylong health care summit hosted by the White House this past week was characterized by disagreements between Democrats and Republicans. But there was an occasional mention of one issue both parties agree on: preventing health insurers from canceling people's policies after they get sick. At the summit, President Obama said the practice is all too common.
President BARACK OBAMA: I've got a bunch of stories in here of folks who thought they had insurance, got sick, the insurance company goes back and figures out a way to drop them.
HANSEN: NPR's Joanne Silberner now reports on the prospects of preventing insurers from doing just that.
JOANNE SILBERNER: One of the first speakers at this week's White House summit was Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Senate's leading Democrat. And the first thing he talked about was something called rescission.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Majority Leader): I want to start by talking about a young man by the man by the name of Jesus Gutierrez.
SILBERNER: Jesus Gutierrez is the owner and chef at Fresh Mex, a local mom and pop restaurant in Reno. He and his wife had a baby girl a few years ago. The baby had a cleft palate, something that could - and was - easily fixed with surgery. Gutierrez and his wife had been paying $970 a month for a family health insurance policy. But when the bills started coming in, Gutierrez says the insurer denied the claims, saying his daughter had a preexisting condition. That left him with $98,000 in medical bills.
Mr. JESUS GUTIERREZ (Owner and Chef, Fresh Mex, Reno): It was a very stressful situation for us.
SILBERNER: He thought he was covered. Senator Reid says there needs to be legislation.
Sen. REID: This shouldn't happen to anyone in America. He had health insurance. He paid his premiums.
SILBERNER: Democrats aren't the only ones who feel this way. Republicans too are concerned about the issue. Last June, a congressional committee held one of the more heated hearings of the year. Committee investigators found three large insurers made about 20,000 retroactive insurance cancellations over the course of five years. In some cases, people have deliberately covered up preexisting conditions on their applications, but some people had inadvertently left something out.
Robin Beeten(ph) told how her health insurer, Blue Cross of Texas, cancelled her insurance two days before a scheduled mastectomy for breast cancer. She hadn't told them she once had acne. She contacted her congressman, Joe Barton of Texas, the lead Republican on the panel and a self-avowed friend of insurance companies. But when representatives of the insurance companies testified, he laid into them.
Representative JOE BARTON (Republican, Texas): Doesn't it bother you that people are going to die because you insist on reviewing a policy that somebody took out in good faith and forgot to tell you that they were being treated for acne?
SILBERNER: A health insurance industry trade group spokesperson says the industry knows that rescissions can cause hardships. Its position: The government should put into effect guaranteed coverage where everyone has to have insurance, then it would be easier for the industry to ignore preexisting conditions and there would be no need for rescissions.
And at this week's summit, President Obama reminded Republicans in attendance, including House Minority Leader John Boehner, that their proposal would also protect people in this situation.
Pres. OBAMA: We agree on the notion that you can't just drop somebody if they've already purchased coverage, looking at your bill, John, the idea that you banned rescissions.
SILBERNER: Health policy consultant Alex Vachon says there's going to be some kind of legislation soon.
Mr. ALEX VACHON (Health Policy Consultant): This is one of the core insurance market reforms the Democrats have been advocating for, along with elimination of preexisting conditions and some other protections as they deem as essential.
SILBERNER: And if a full bill doesn't go through, what then? Vachon says bipartisan support is strong enough that an anti-rescission bill would go through on its own, even outside of a broad, health overhaul plan.
Joanne Silberner, NPR News.
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