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Fact check: Azar says federal law had preexisting conditions covered before ACA.

Julie Rovner, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

One of the most popular features of the Affordable Care Act is its guarantee of insurance coverage -- at no greater cost -- for people with preexisting health conditions.

Thus, even as the Trump administration argues before the Supreme Court that the entire Affordable Care Act should be declared invalid, the president and his administration officials maintain that regardless of what happens to the ACA, they will protect people who have had health problems in the past.

Speaking to a "virtual health summit" sponsored by the political newspaper The Hill, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar answered a question about the case, Texas v. Azar, by pointing out "it's in statute already in HIPAA that preexisting conditions are covered," implying that if the ACA were declared unconstitutional, those protections would remain in place for everyone.

Umm ... not so much.

When we checked with HHS for more information about Azar's comment, a spokesperson reiterated the secretary's statement, adding that Azar was "clear that the story on preexisting conditions doesn't end with HIPAA" and that affordability is a critical component.

So we investigated.

 

A LITTLE ABOUT HIPAA

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a law we have examined before, was passed by a Republican-led Congress and signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1996. It is best known for safeguarding medical privacy and patient access to medical records, even though the privacy provisions were added toward the end of congressional deliberations.

HIPAA's original purpose was to end what was known as "job lock," a situation in which people with preexisting conditions were reluctant to leave jobs with health insurance even for other positions with health insurance for fear their conditions would not be covered or they would be subject to long waiting periods for coverage. Both scenarios were common at the time.

HIPAA addressed that problem -- as long as people maintained "continuous" coverage, defined as having health insurance for at least 12 months without a break of more than 63 days. People who met that requirement could not have waiting periods or denials of coverage imposed upon their own or a family member's preexisting condition. HIPAA included protections for people with coverage in the small-group insurance market, which primarily comprises small businesses, by requiring insurers who sold policies in that market to sell to all small groups, regardless of health status, and to cover every eligible member of the groups -- again, regardless of health status.

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