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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Will Ferrell, Pygmy Horses and Health Insurance

MoveOn.org Political Action’s latest video is a satirical send-up of a public service announcement titled "Protect Insurance Companies." It features a collection of actors – including "Saturday Night Live" alum (and Dodge Stratus driver) Will Ferrell, "Mad Men"’s Jon Hamm and "The State"’s Thomas Lennon – who defend, among other things, the right of insurance CEOs to pursue an American dream that includes a "mini-zoo in your backyard for exotic animals like a white tiger and pygmy horses." We suspect that many viewers will find it funny, though insurance company executives may not be among them.

At one point, Ferrell deadpans to the camera that "insurance companies are detail-oriented enough to deny claims for things like typos. If you spell something wrong, do you really deserve surgery?" That got us wondering. Can a person have a claim denied or lose insurance coverage (a practice known as "rescission") simply because he or she makes a typo?

Chatter on the Internet has suggested that this happens. A number of small independent bloggers and anonymous message board posters have said that insurance companies will drop or deny coverage for "administrative typos and errors," or "typographical errors." More prominently, Think Progress, a project of the liberal Center for American Progress, published a blog entry on Sept. 15 that claimed insurance companies will use "reasons as flimsy as typos on your enrollment form to cancel your coverage when you get sick."

The Think Progress blogger pointed us to a few instances in which, he said, typos played a role in health insurance rescissions. None of the stories quite fit the model of patients’ coverage being canceled because they made typographical errors. One came close: According to a memo released by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in advance of a hearing, an insurance company rejected one man’s claim because "the patient’s weight at the time of surgery was listed as 310 pounds, while his weight listed on the application was 215 pounds." Wellpoint, the insurer in question, might well have suspected that the patient was fraudulently trying to cover up an obesity problem. Documents obtained by the committee showed that the error was committed by an insurance agent, however, and not the patient, and that the agent didn’t follow the standard procedure of having the applicant review the completed form. It didn’t seem to matter to Wellpoint that its own agent was responsible: Even though an in-house lawyer for the company advised against it, Wellpoint rescinded the man’s coverage, according to the memo.

Another of the examples is clearly more complicated: During the committee’s hearing, a Texan named Robin Beaton said that she was denied coverage for a double mastectomy because a dermatologist’s report included a word on her chart "which was considered to mean precancerous." A further review found that her weight had been listed incorrectly and that she had not reported previous medication she had taken. Beaton contacted her congressman, Rep. Joe Barton, to intervene with the insurer on her behalf. She ultimately had the surgery, though by then her tumor had grown from 2 to 3 centimeters to 7, requiring the removal of all the lymph nodes in one of her arms.

We’re not defending the practice of rescission. Insurance company executives maintain they need the option to combat fraudulent applications or claims. Some of the cases that have been publicized, though, make the insurers look pretty hard-hearted. 

Still, typos? Typographical errors and misspellings may play a role in lost coverage when they lead to misunderstandings of policy holder’s symptoms and physical condition. But we’ve yet to hear of a case in which a simple typo by a patient was the cause of the rescission of that patient’s coverage. The Wellpoint case we mention above, involving an apparent typographical error by an insurance agent, is the closest example we’re aware of.

That said, we spent a little time looking into another of Ferrell’s claims in the video. Unfortunately, we must relate that we have found no evidence of health insurance executives having private mini-zoos in their backyards.

But if they do, can we bring our kids to visit?