Could your Fitbit data be used to deny you health insurance?
Wearing a fitness tracking device could earn you cash from your health insurance company. At first, this sounds lucrative for the people who participate, and good for the companies, who want healthier insurance customers. But it’s not quite so simple.
Under the program, people who have certain health insurance coverage plans with United Healthcare can elect to wear a Fitbit activity tracker and share their data with the insurance company. The data would be analyzed by Qualcomm Life, a company that processes medical data from wireless sensors for doctors, hospitals and insurance companies. Depending on how active participants are, as measured by the Fitbit, they could earn as much as US$1,500 toward health care services each year.
Interest in wearable fitness trackers is booming. More than half of people who already own one believe their devices will help them increase their life expectancy by 10 years – even though it’s impossible to actually know that because the clinical trials necessary would take at least a decade. Adding free money to the mix only makes the devices seem more attractive
Wearables’ data can definitely be used to help patients. But it could also be used to harm them, particularly in light of recent political developments. With the passage of the Affordable Care Act (also called Obamacare), insurance companies were barred from denying coverage to customers who had preexisting medical conditions at the time they signed up for insurance. If that rule is lifted by Republicans in Congress, insurers might look to wearable devices for evidence they could use to refuse to pay for patients’ health care.
This development would have enormous consequences. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, as many as half of all Americans have some sort of condition that could be used to exclude them from coverage, such as asthma, cancer or mental illness. Might insurance companies ask prospective customers for their Fitbit data, in addition to – or even in lieu of – a physical exam or laboratory tests? Could they set rates based on what those data show – or deny coverage entirely?
Car insurance companies are already using similar methods. Some insurers provide their customers with devices to install in their cars, measuring drivers’ behavior and calculating the risk involved – and the rate they pay for coverage.
At the moment, the algorithms are still under development. But the biggest thing United HealthCare needs now is a large data set of customer Fitbit measurements, so it can link them to insurance claims. Its new cash-for-data program will begin to assemble that information.
As insurance customers signed up to use a Fitbit and get some extra cash for sharing their data, United would be able to match their Fitbit measurements with any health conditions identified in their medical records. Over time, the company could build up enough information from, say, people with asthma and people without it to be able to tell asthma patients apart by looking just at their data. The company could do this for other common diseases, too, or even adapt the algorithms from the contestants in the Qualcomm competition.
Consumers should not assume their insurance companies will use their data only to improve patient care. With millions of dollars on the line, insurers will be sorely tempted. With the legal landscape around preexisting conditions in flux, people should think twice before signing up.
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