LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas has always been a champion for women's health care. Just last month, she introduced legislation that would ensure Medicare coverage of custom-fabricated breast prostheses, which are a lower-cost alternative to reconstructive surgery, which has additional risks and higher costs.
But since 2001, Lincoln has also accepted $12,500 from a PAC for Indiana-based WellPoint, one of the nation's largest health insurance companies, which is currently under fire by the Obama administration. In his weekly radio address last weekend, President Barack Obama said one insurance company has been "systematically dropping the coverage of women diagnosed with breast cancer."
That company is WellPoint -- the parent company of Anthem Blue Cross, which wanted to raise health care premiums 30 percent for 800,000 Californians. In late April, it backed down from raising prices after state officials showed "numerous and substantial errors" in a filing Anthem said justified the increases.
On Monday, WellPoint chief executive Angela F. Braly sent a letter to Obama, accusing him of citing "false information" regarding rescissions.
An April investigation by Reuters examined WellPoint's use of a computer algorithm automatically targeting breast cancer patients and every other policyholder recently diagnosed with breast cancer. The software then triggered an immediate fraud investigation on the policy holder. In turn, the woman was dropped from her insurance.
Garry Hoffman, a spokesman for Lincoln's primary opponent, Bill Halter, said in an interview that Lincoln should return campaign contributions from WellPoint until an investigation of the insurer's rescission policies and procedures has been completed.
"If true, this is a horrific practice that should immediately cease" Hoffman said. "Singling out women with breast cancer for the purpose of denying them insurance coverage is cold, callous and cruel."
Lincoln won't discuss the contributions from WellPoint. Her campaign instead focuses on Lincoln's vote for the recently enacted health care bill. "Because of Senator Lincoln's vote to pass the health care reform bill that is now law, health insurance companies will be banned from dropping coverage for sick patients and no patient will be denied coverage based on a pre-existing condition," spokesman Katie Laning Niebaum said.
Halter and Lincoln are embroiled in a nasty primary battle, with Election Day coming up on May 18.
According to the Reuters investigation, federal investigators concluded that "WellPoint has specifically targeted women with breast cancer for aggressive investigation with the intent to cancel their policies."
The investigation also highlights how lobbyists for WellPoint and other health insurance companies worked against an early version of the health care bill passed by the House of Representatives that would have created a Federal Office of Health Insurance Oversight to monitor and regulate insurance practices like rescission.
In turn, WellPoint hit back after the Reuters story. On its website, the company listed a litany of errors in the story and called it "inaccurate and grossly misleading."
"Contrary to how its use was portrayed in the story, such software is used to look at a series of diagnostic codes meant to capture conditions that applicants would likely have known about at the time they applied for coverage," the statement said. "We do not single out breast cancer or pregnancy."
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