WASHINGTON — As many as 129 million Americans younger than age 65 have medical problems that are red flags for health insurers, according to an analysis that marks the government's first attempt to quantify the number of people at risk of being rejected by insurance companies or paying more for coverage.
The study was released by the secretary of health and human services on Tuesday hours before the House began considering a Republican bill to repeal the law.
Among those who spoke in opposition of repeal efforts was Ed Burke, a 52-year-old from Palm Harbor who suffers from hemophilia, a blood disorder. He testified before a House committee.
"Simply put, I will lose the freedom to keep my job if efforts to repeal my protections are successful," he told the committee.
Burke said provisions in the health care law that protect individuals with pre-existing conditions and remove annual and lifetime caps have helped the approximately 120 million people in the U.S. with a chronic disease, disability or limitation.
"When elected officials are voting to repeal patients rights legislation, they are in reality forcing Americans like myself, a working tax-paying citizen, back to a world where health insurance coverage is constantly an issue and lifesaving care is often out of reach, just so the health insurance industry can continue its multimillion dollar for-profit industry," he said. "That, my fellow Americans, is what's about to occur in the halls of Congress."
The study found that one-fifth to one-half of nonelderly people in the United States have ailments that trigger rejection or higher prices in the individual insurance market. They range from cancer to chronic illnesses such as heart disease, asthma and high blood pressure.
The smaller estimate is based on the number of Americans whose medical problems would make them eligible for states' high-risk pools — special coverage for people denied insurance because of their medical history. The larger figure reflects researchers' addition of other ailments that major insurers consider a basis to charge customers higher prices or to exclude coverage for some of the care they need.
The study is laced with reminders about provisions of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — as the health care law is formally known — that are designed to eliminate insurance problems for such people.
The most significant is scheduled to take effect in 2014, when the law will, for the first time, forbid insurers to charge sick patients more or reject sick applicants. Last year, two smaller changes took effect: a rule that insurers cannot reject sick children, and temporary subsidies until 2014 for a federal high-risk pool and new state ones. In their early months, the pools have not proved popular.
Told about the new analysis, Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesman for America's Health Insurance Plans, the industry's main lobbying group, said: "Look, we've long supported reforming the individual insurance market so that everybody can have access to health care coverage, regardless of their pre-existing medical conditions. But this report exaggerates the number of people who are impacted."