Commentary Law and Policy

What’s the Use of Private Insurance If You Don’t Feel Safe Using It?

Renee Bracey Sherman

Bills like SB 138 in California will enable people like me to access health care, mental health services, birth control, and substance treatments without fear that a parent or partner will find out about it, saving out-of-pocket and state costs along the way.

“Do you have insurance?” the nurse asked me as I checked in for my abortion. “Yep,” I replied and handed her the card. She asked if I was the policyholder; I was not. “Just so you know,” she said, “the insurance company will send a list of benefits used to the policyholder and they will see your abortion listed. Are you okay with that?” My heart sunk. While my parents identified as pro-choice, I hadn’t told them about the decision my partner and I made to have an abortion. They didn’t even know I was pregnant. I was planning on telling them, but not until I was ready.

I took back the insurance card and gave her my credit card, which I was privileged enough to have. The cost: $450. It was unreal. How was I going to afford that when I only worked part time for $8.50 an hour at a retail store? Here I was with insurance that covered my abortion-related care, but I couldn’t use it without my parents finding out. People who are lucky enough to have private insurance through another person, like a parent or partner, should feel safe enough to use it.

Fortunately, California is leading the way with a national model for protecting the privacy of the insured. With SB 138—the Confidential Health Information Act—introduced by Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) and co-sponsored by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the California Family Health Council, and the National Center for Youth Law—loopholes that lead to the disclosure of sensitive and personal health information in the Explanation of Benefits letter and other health plan communications will be closed. The bill updates California law to include existing federal HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) provisions; so if you are seeking services that are sensitive, such as a sexually transmitted disease checkup, an abortion, or mental health services, you can keep that private and not have to fear someone will find out. SB 138 currently is making its way through the California legislature. After having made its way out of the California senate, it now awaits clearance out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, young people can stay on their parent’s insurance until they turn 26 and more people will move into private insurance thanks to more affordable options that will be made available through Covered California, the state’s insurance marketplace. SB 138 would make sure that patients have the privacy they need and deserve when using their insurance.

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If bills like SB 138 were law when I had my abortion, I could have opted in to keeping my personal and sensitive health matters between me and my health-care provider. SB 138 also goes beyond sensitive health services. If you feel like disclosure of your health information for any health service could put you in danger, you could also opt in to privacy protections, and insurance companies will have to accept and honor your request.

Bills like this one will enable people like me to access health care, mental health services, birth control, and substance treatments without fear that a parent or partner will find out about it, saving out-of-pocket and state costs along the way. I hope you’ll join me in fighting for the Confidential Health Information Act in California and urging leaders in other states to do more to protect patient privacy in our new health-care delivery system and economy.

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