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Why health insurers are paying to access personal data

A nurse writes out an appointment date for a patient.
Photo: Adam Berry/Getty Images

Health insurance companies are paying for reams of personal data about us, their customers — where we live, whether we pay our bills on time, even our social media posts and online shopping habits. Which is, undeniably, kind of scary.

Driving the news: ProPublica had a very thorough story yesterday on what insurers are collecting, how they're collecting it, and what they're doing with it. But some of the responses to that story were missing a few pieces, so I think it's worth a closer look.

How it works, via ProPublica:

  • "Are you a woman who recently changed your name? You could be newly married and have a pricey pregnancy pending. Or maybe you’re stressed and anxious from a recent divorce. That, too, the computer models predict, may run up your medical bills."
  • "Are you a woman who’s purchased plus-size clothing? You’re considered at risk of depression. Mental health care can be expensive."

There are good uses for some of this data, at least theoretically. Factors like poverty and education do affect our health, and to the extent insurers are truly interested in keeping their patients healthy, knowing who's at risk is the only way to target those resources effectively.

But: The obvious fear is that insurers will use this information to jack up people's rates if they seem high-risk — even based on generalizations about tangential data.

But, but: There's almost no market right now where they can do that. It's illegal for employer-based plans and individual plans, like those sold through the Affordable Care Act, to discriminate against people because of their health.

But, but, but: Such a market is about to open up, with the Trump administration's expansion of short-term health plans, which are allowed to turn away high-risk customers.

  • As ProPublica notes, this information can also help insurers take stock of who lives in a broader geographic area, and decide whether they're likely to make money if they sell plans there.

The bottom line: “No one gave anyone permission to do this," a former industry official told ProPublica.