Jul 18, 2018

Why health insurers are paying to access personal data

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.

Go deeper

In photos: India welcomes president with massive "Namaste Trump" rally

First Lady Melania Trump, President Trump and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend the "Namaste Trump" rally at Sardar Patel Stadium in Motera, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, on Monday. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump was addressing a massive rally after arriving with members of the U.S. first family in Ahmedabad, northwest India, Monday for a two-day visit.

Why it matters: The countries are forging deeper ties, particularly in the military dimension, as India’s location, size and economic growth making it the "obvious counterweight to China" for American policymakers, per Axios' Dave Lawler and Zachary Basu. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is demonstrating the importance of the visit by holding a "Namaste Trump Rally" at a packed 110,000-capacity Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad — the world's largest cricket venue.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 47 mins ago - World

Concern over coronavirus spread: Italy, South Korea and Iran report more cases

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens.

The number of novel coronavirus cases in South Korea, Italy and Iran jumped on Sunday as infections in mainland China continued to grow, the latest figures show.

The big picture: As South Korea and Italy stepped up emergency measures amid rising case numbers, World Health Organization officials expressed concern about infections with no clear link to China. COVID-19 has killed at least 2,619 people and infected almost 80,000 others, with all but 27 deaths occurring in mainland China.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 5 hours ago - Health

Sanders reveals free childcare plan for preschoolers

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign rally on Saturday in El Paso, Texas. Photo: Cengiz Yar/Getty Images

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders announced on CBS' "60 Minutes" Sunday a new plan to guarantee free child care and pre-kindergarten to all American children from infancy to age four.

Details: In the wide-ranging interview, Sanders told Anderson Cooper he planned to pay for universal childcare with a wealth tax. "It's taxes on billionaires," he said.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy