By Lewis Krauskopf
(Reuters) – UnitedHealth Group Inc, the largest U.S. health insurer by market value, said it would maintain the health coverage protections included in President Barack Obama’s healthcare law regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on the legislation.
The Supreme Court is expected to decide later this month whether to strike down all or portions of the law, Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement that was passed in 2010.
The provisions UnitedHealth will maintain include continuing to provide coverage for dependents up to age 26 under their parents’ plan.
The company will also continue to offer certain preventive healthcare services without requiring a co-payment, which include annual check-ups, screening for high-blood pressure and diabetes, and immunizations.
UnitedHealth will also continue to forgo lifetime dollar coverage limits on policies.
"The protections we are voluntarily extending are good for people’s health, promote broader access to quality care and contribute to helping control rising health care costs," UnitedHealth Chief Executive Officer Stephen Hemsley said in a statement. "These provisions make sense for the people we serve and it is important to ensure they know these provisions will continue."
The law, known as the Affordable Care Act, represented the biggest overhaul to the $2.6 trillion U.S. healthcare system in nearly 50 years.
UnitedHealth’s vow applies to provisions that have already begun, although many of the more sweeping changes in the legislation have yet to take effect.
It is designed to eventually expand coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans, by establishing insurance exchanges and broadening the Medicaid program for low-income Americans.
The provision allowing children to stay on their parents’ plans up to age 26 is perhaps the single most popular component.
The law likely enabled about 6.6 million young adults to join their parents’ health insurance plans last year, according to a recent report from The Commonwealth Fund, a non-profit organization that analyzes healthcare issues.
Should the law be struck down, Republican lawmakers may seek to reinstate the extension of young adults dependent coverage.
The other provisions UnitedHealth will maintain include providing clear ways for members to appeal coverage claim decisions; and the elimination of rescissions, which are generally considered to be retroactive policy cancellations, except in the case of fraud.
DeAnn Friedholm, director for health reform at Consumers Union, called UnitedHealth’s actions "a positive step" and said she hoped other companies would follow suit should the law be struck down.
Several other large health insurers did not immediately respond to questions over whether they would also continue to offer the coverage provisions. Cigna Corp said it was "prepared to proceed as appropriate on behalf of our customers when the court deliberations reach their conclusion."
An insurance industry source said that other insurers are likely to keep some of these benefits in their policies if the entire law is overturned.
UnitedHealth, which serves more than 38 million members, said the protections are effective immediately and will be available to current and future plan members.
The law also bars insurers from denying coverage to children up to age 19 with pre-existing medical conditions.
UnitedHealth said that while it recognized the value of this provision, "One company acting alone cannot take that step, so UnitedHealthcare is committed to working with all other participants in the health care system to sustain that coverage."
The ban on denying coverage to those with pre-existing conditions will apply to adults starting in 2014, under the law.
Friedholm of Consumers Union said if a single company "declared they would take any comers, and their competitors do not, then they will immediately attract the sickest population, which would disadvantage them in trying to compete on prices."
"It requires a level playing field so that all the companies have to play by the same rule," Friedholm said.
In addition to the insurance protections and coverage expansion, the healthcare overhaul law adds new regulations and fees to the healthcare industry, particularly health insurance companies.
Insurers are required to spend a certain level of their premium revenue on medical care and face more stringent reviews of rate increases.
At the heart of the Supreme Court case is a requirement in the law that individuals buy health insurance coverage or face a penalty, known as the individual mandate.
Should the mandate alone be struck down, and the companies are required to cover people regardless of health status, the insurers have said people will buy insurance only when they become ill, causing premiums to rise.
(Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf in New York; Editing by Chris Gallagher and Tim Dobbyn)
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