WASHINGTON (AP) -- Ending insurance discrimination against the sick was a central goal of the nation's health care overhaul, but leading patient groups say that promise is being undermined by new barriers from insurers.<br />
The insurance industry responds that critics are confusing legitimate cost-control with bias. Some state regulators, however, say there's reason to be concerned about policies that shift costs to patients and narrow their choices of hospitals and doctors.<br />
With open enrollment for 2015 three months away, the Obama administration is being pressed to enforce the Affordable Care Act's anti-discrimination provisions. Some regulations have been issued; others are pending after more than four years.<br />
More than 300 patient advocacy groups recently wrote Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell to complain about some insurer tactics that "are highly discriminatory against patients with chronic health conditions and may ... violate the (law's) nondiscrimination provisions."<br />
Among the groups were the AIDS Institute, the American Lung Association, Easter Seals, the Epilepsy Foundation, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the National Kidney Foundation and United Cerebral Palsy. All supported the law.<br />
Coverage of expensive drugs tops their concerns.<br />
The advocates also say they are disappointed by how difficult it's proved for consumers to get a full picture of plans sold on the new insurance exchanges. Digging is often required to learn crucial details such as drugs covered, exact copayments and which doctors and hospitals are in the network.<br />
An HHS spokeswoman said the department is preparing a formal response to the advocates and stressed that today's level of consumer protection is far superior to what existed before President Barack Obama's law, when an insurance company could use any existing medical condition to deny coverage.<br />
The insurance industry trade group America's Health Insurance Plans says there's no discrimination because patients have many options on the insurance exchanges. Gold and platinum plans feature lower cost-sharing, but have higher premiums. Standard silver plans generally require patients to pay a greater share of medical bills, but some have fairly robust drug coverage.<br />
"There are plans on the exchanges that are right for people who have these health conditions," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for the group.
A blustery winter storm dumped snow and ice across the West on Wednesday, making driving treacherous in the mountains from California to the Rockies and forcing residents and party-goers in some usually sun-soaked cities to bundle up for a frosty New Year's.
House Republican leaders rallied around one of their own, Whip Steve Scalise, on Tuesday after he said he regrets speaking 12 years ago to a white supremacist organization and condemns the views of such groups.
President Vladimir Putin's chief political foe was convicted along with his brother on Tuesday in a fraud case widely seen as a vendetta by the Kremlin, triggering one of Russia's boldest anti-government demonstrations in years.
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