Jan 15 (Reuters) - A consumer advocacy group has accused Blue Cross of California of discriminating against patients with HIV/AIDS by changing the protocol they use to obtain their medications.
Under the new policy, set to go into effect on March 1, enrollees with HIV/AIDS and numerous other medical conditions must obtain prescriptions through mail-order pharmacies instead of relying on local brick-and-mortar pharmacies.
The class action, filed on Friday by Consumer Watchdog on behalf of California residents with the disease, says that the insurance company's new policy will harm consumers with HIV/AIDS by preventing them from relying on local pharmacists for medical advice unless they obtain a waiver every six months from the company.
Instead, enrollees will have to order their medications from the mail-order pharmacy CuraScript, owned by Express Scripts Inc, the suit said.
HIV/AIDS patients will no longer benefit from the face-to-face interactions with clinical pharmacists who can monitor potentially harmful drug interactions, the complaint said.
Relying on the mail also carries the risk of delayed, lost or stolen shipments, with possible dire consequences for patients on strict drug regimens, according to the complaint.
In addition to health consequences, the suit also raised privacy concerns with the possibility of medication packages being left on patients' doorsteps.
"Neighbors and co-workers, who do not know that the recipient has HIV/AIDS, would quickly realize that the recipient is suffering from a serious ailment," the complaint said.
The suit said the new policy violates a California law, the Unruh Civil Rights Act, which outlaws discrimination based on numerous traits, including disability and medical condition.
The Blue Cross letter announcing the change listed the affected drugs under the disease they treat and also singled out cancer, hemophilia and inflammatory conditions among others, according to the complaint.
Blue Cross spokesman Darrel Ng said in an email the new policy does not discriminate based on different diseases but rather applies to several hundred different drugs for many medical ailments. HIV/AIDS patients have 24-hour access to pharmacists and nurses from the mail-order pharmacy, he said, and customers can choose to have their drugs shipped to other private locations, such as a doctor's office.
Consumer Watchdog attorney Jerry Flanagan said the group chose to sue Blue Cross because when the insurer does something that boosts company profits but poses harm to consumers, other insurance companies often follow suit.
"We're hoping that this lawsuit is a warning to other insurance companies that they shouldn't follow Blue Cross' lead," Flanagan said.
The case is Doe v. Blue Cross of California, d/b/a Anthem Blue Cross, San Diego Superior Court. The case number was not immediately available.
For the customer plaintiffs: Edith Kallas, Alan Mansfield and Kristin Libby of Whatley Kallas; Harvey Rosenfield, Pamela Pressley and Jerry Flanagan of Consumer Watchdog.
For Blue Cross of California: Not immediately available.