Before the Affordable Care Act (ACA), those with serious or chronic health conditions were often denied health insurance coverage or paid high prices for substandard plans with coverage exclusions. Many went uninsured and untreated. For them, the ACA’s new coverage opportunities and protections against discriminatory practices by health insurers serve as an essential lifeline.
Under the ACA, insurers can no longer charge higher premiums or deny coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. However, some insurers have tried to circumvent ACA protections by designing benefits that discourage enrollment by persons with significant health needs.
NHeLP and The AIDS Institute filed a landmark complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights after four Florida insurers placed all HIV medicines, including generic drugs, on the highest cost sharing tiers. Researchers found that this practice—called “adverse tiering”—is widespread. A New England Journal of Medicine study found that one-in-four insurers placed all drugs to treat HIV in the highest tiers. Another study in Journal of the American Medical Association found that up to 15 percent of plans in the federal marketplace lack in-network physicians for at least one specialty, making access to care significantly more expensive for those with specialized care needs.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently finalized regulations for the cornerstone non-discrimination provision of the ACA — Section 1557. For the first time, the provision applies civil rights protections against discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, age, and disability specifically to health programs and activities administered by or receiving federal funding.
Health advocates and patient advocacy organizations lauded the final regulations for Section 1557, which expressly prohibit insurers from employing plan benefit designs or marketing practices that discriminate.