By Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., National Newspaper Publishers Association, President and CEO
In the past year, a reckoning has happened across the country. What Black people and other communities of color have known for years, our White brothers and sisters are starting to learn. Our country is plagued with systemic racism that runs through industries across the nation. Most concerning is the deep roots it has within the American healthcare system. It’s time that we shine a light on this and stop letting insurance companies get away with it.
Health insurance companies have a long-proven pattern of exploiting and discriminating against people of color in this country. As I wrote in an op-ed in The Hill in April 2020. “Minority and low-income Americans suffer from a significant lack of access to quality health care. They are also more likely to not have health insurance and are often hit with surprise medical bills they cannot afford.” Now, insurance companies are at it again by prioritizing their own profits rather than the health and well-being of all Americans.
One of the most recent acts of insurance company greed happened with UnitedHealthcare, the nation’s largest insurance provider. Just recently, the insurance giant announced it would no longer cover patients’ nonurgent visits to the emergency room retroactively. Yes, you read that correctly. An American insurance company is no longer going to cover American patients who incorrectly self-diagnose and seek emergency treatment.
With a year of one public health crisis after another, UnitedHealthcare is creating an extra barrier to entry for patients accessing care. As pointed out by the American College of Emergency Physicians, there is a fear that “the change will cause patients to avoid using emergency rooms because they will be responsible for their hospital bills when UnitedHealthcare rejects them.” Because many patients were already fearful of visiting the hospital during the COVID-19, there was a rise in cases of “out-of-hospital cardiac arrest and associated poor health outcomes,” as reported in Health Affairs by researchers from the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management and unsurprisingly, this rise was particularly seen in low-income neighborhoods.
As with most corporate decisions, the effects of this policy will inevitably affect our nation’s most vulnerable populations the most. In fact, according to a 2017 University of Maryland School of Medicine study. Black Americans use the emergency room more often than any other racial group.
To put that simply, UnitedHealthcare’s policy is directed at those who visit emergency rooms, and Black Americans are the most likely demographic group to visit the emergency room. A coincidence? I doubt it.
Patients should not be expected to correctly self-diagnose their health issue before visiting the emergency room.
Patients look to medical professions to diagnose and treat health problems; putting the burden back onto patients is unacceptable.
While the policy was scheduled to take effect on July 1, 2021, public backlash led to UnitedHealthcare’s new stance that it should not go into effect until “the end of the national public health emergency period.” The reality is that for the Public Health Emergency (PHE) period is set to expire on July 20. 2021, if it is not renewed. So, the delay announcement was really just for show, and may not do anything in terms of ending this policy.
UnitedHealthcare should not get away with this. We must speak out and advocate for those who do not have a platform to speak for themselves. Those with chronic conditions, from low income and minority communities deserve to seek emergency health care without fear of racial discrimination and indebting themselves or their families.
Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is president and chief executive of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) based in Washington, DC.