Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Health insurance outrage for special needs parents

Typically, my biggest gripes about our health insurance are: 1) convincing the insurance company that Max needs therapies and 2) dealing with their repeated mishandling of claims. I have recently put in no less than a dozen calls to Cigna about a bunch of AWOL bills. But the recent Sony Corp. hacking scandal has aired an even bigger concern about health insurance and special needs families.

As you've probably read by now, cyber-hackers have snatched countless emails and documents from Sony Pictures. It's troubling that more than 47,000 social security numbers have been exposed. It was fascinating to read emails about Angelina Jolie being a "brat" and Jennifer Lawrence's compensation for American Hustle. And it was horrifying to find out, as this Bloomberg article reports, that a leaked company spreadsheet details health conditions and medical costs for 34 employees, their partners and their kids who had high medical costs; conditions included premature births, cancer and kidney failure.

Particularly chilling: reading about denied health claims for an employee whose child needed speech therapy. An internal company memo sent by an HR executive to Sony's benefits team is said to have detailed the name of the child, the diagnosis, the type of treatment received, how the child was doing, the location of the facility—and the employee's appeal of a denial of thousands of dollars in medical claims. (This might sound painfully familiar to those of us who have kids with special needs.) "This is the absolute worst nightmare for this employee and their family," said Deborah Peel, director of the nonprofit Patient Privacy Rights, noting that both the child's name and the level of detail should never have been shared.

It's unclear just how Sony got the information on the child. Sometimes, insurance companies do send companies aggregate financial information about large medical claims for serious medical conditions, typically as a way to justify a rate hike. However, they do not share specific names or personal information.

Back in February, AOL chief executive officer Tim Armstrong stirred up controversy when during a company-wide conference call with employees about cutbacks to retirement benefits, he called out two staffers' high medical costs. As he told the crowd, "Two things happened in 2012. We had two Aol-ers that had distressed babies that were born that we paid a million dollars each to make sure those babies were OK in general. And those are the things that add up into our benefits costs." Armstrong eventually issued an apology. (The mother of one baby, a preemie, wrote this powerful Slate piece.)

Both incidents raise concerns about companies tracking employees and dependents with medical conditions. Back when I was the one who carried our family's health insurance plan, I remember wondering whether HR knew about Max's disability (this was pre-blog). Once, I had to rope in someone in Benefits to help when the insurance company refused to reimburse us for Max's therapies, and I tried to not share too much information with him about Max's situation. I didn't ever wanting anyone at the company thinking I had too much on my plate, or that I was in any way not fully committed to my job. Discrimination happens in all sorts of ways.

Most employers actually choose not to know about employees' medical information since it opens doors to "issues" including violation of HIPAA laws, as this CNN article notes. Rules prohibit firing employees because of medical issues. I hope the fallout from the Sony hacking scandal makes companies acutely aware that they cross a line when they track employees' medical conditions and costs.

Image: Flickr/shehan peruma


  1. Crazy. It just doesn't make sense.

  2. It sounds like you're drowning in paperwork. Finals start today. I hope I don't fail.

  3. "I hope the fallout from the Sony hacking scandal makes companies acutely aware that they cross a line when they track employees' medical conditions and costs."

    Absolutely! Very, very well-said.

  4. While I do not think sharing general information about why a company has incurred increased health care costs is wrong, specific employees, such as, the persons with the sick infants should not be singled out for identification. I cannot imagine information being shared about employees receiving treatment for cancer or addiction.
    All employees are entitled to their privacy


Thanks for sharing!

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