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Rep. Katie Porter Accuses UnitedHealth of 'Putting Profits Before Patients and Providers' in Midst of Pandemic

"It's flat out wrong for the world's largest insurance company to pass costs on to families in the middle of a pandemic—I want answers."

In this photo illustration, the UnitedHealth Group company logo seen displayed on a smartphone.

In this photo illustration, the UnitedHealth Group company logo seen displayed on a smartphone. (Photo: Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Rep. Katie Porter on Wednesday demanded answers from health insurance giant UnitedHealth for taking actions that stand to further increase its profits but "threaten the well-being of... patients, physicians, and other healthcare providers" in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic.

"It's flat out wrong for the world's largest insurance company to pass costs on to families in the middle of a pandemic—I want answers," Porter (D-Calif.) tweeted Wednesday.

In her letter to Medicare for All critic and UnitedHealth Group CEO David Wichmann, dated Wednesday, Porter singles out reports that UnitedHealth is acting "to reduce healthcare provider networks and decrease reimbursement rates." Those moves come as UnitedHealth, and major health insurance companies in general, are on track for a banner financial year and can expect "continued year-over-year growth," she wrote.

"UnitedHealth does not predict that projected earnings will drop in 2020, even as the pandemic continues to ravage other businesses," wrote Porter.

The company's own first quarter statements showed total revenue rose 6.8% to $64.42 billion, beating analysts' estimates.

Despite the optimistic financial outlook for UnitedHealth—and the major public health crisis—the insurer has moved to squeeze out even more profits by reducing patients' access to care, said Porter.

Porter said her office received information from a physicians group saying they were notified in late 2019 that they'd be terminated from the network. The group also said they had no rate reimbursement increase in four years. "Further," wrote Porter, "when they asked if United's actions to remove them from the provider network could be placed on hold due to the pandemic, United refused."

"These actions may reduce your costs, but they will likely increase the number of surprise bills patients face during and after the pandemic," she said in her letter.

With treatment for Covid-19 not free, and the possibility treatment could necessitate lengthy hospital stays, patients are at risk of receiving giant bills and thus incurring debt that "will be impossible to pay off," Porter added.

Porter outlined a number of questions for Wichmann to answer, giving the executive a June 3 deadline. Among the answers Porter is seeking is how many providers UnitedHealth removed from network and the insurer's criteria for making those decisions. Porter also asked if providers who asked to remain in network for the duration of pandemic were granted that request and the reasons for any denials.  

The demand to UnitedHealth comes on the heels of scrutiny of several major health insurers' fast-approaching expiration dates for fee waivers for coronavirus treatment.

As advocacy group Public Citizen has documented, a number of insurance companies had a June 1 end day for partial or full fee waivers. And while a number of them have now moved to extend their deadlines, UnitedHealth has not. From the insurer's website on Friday:

UnitedHealthcare is waiving member cost-sharing for the treatment of COVID-19 until May 31, 2020, for Medicare Advantage, Medicaid, Individual and Group Market fully insured health plans. AARP Medicare Supplement Plans will cover cost-sharing for Medicare-eligible expenses for services related to COVID-19 treatment, based on a confirmed positive diagnosis, from February 4, 2020 until May 31, 2020.

Public Citizen president Robert Weissman welcomed the decisions by some insurers to extend the fee waivers but said it also provided more evidence of the failure of a for-profit health system.

"While it is crucial that some insurers are now are belatedly announcing that they intend to extend their out-of-pocket costs waivers for Covid-19 treatment, it is important to remember that this is late, voluntary, and likely would not have even happened without groups like ours shining a spotlight on the rapidly approaching end dates. However, the voluntary nature of these waivers means that insurers could renege on them at any time," Weissman said in a Thursday statement.

"Patients cannot and should not have to depend on the whims of insurance companies during the worst health care crisis in a century," he said.

Weissman pointed to proposed legislation included the Health Care Emergency Guarantee Act and the Medicare Crisis Program Act as measures that could "help spur the country's recovery while decreasing our dependence on healthcare profiteers being in a generous mood when they get out of bed in the morning." But, he stressed, only a full overhaul of the nation's healthcare system is right prescription.

"We need Medicare for All so we can finally ensure that everyone in the U.S. can access the care they need when they need it, regardless of ability to pay," he said.

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