Aetna Inc. confirmed a newspaper report Wednesday that it had begun collecting data on the racial and ethnic backgrounds of its 14 million health plan members in what the insurer says is an effort to narrow the gap in medical treatment between whites and minorities.
Aetna said it hoped to develop programs to narrow the gap and stressed that it would not use the information to limit coverage based on race.
Hartford, Conn.-based Aetna began the initiative in 13 states in September and will add Texas, Florida and two other states by the end of the month. It plans eventually to seek data from all its members.
The company is asking new members or those changing health plans or beneficiaries to voluntarily list their race or ethnic status on their applications. About 80% of the 64,000 applicants who have been asked for the information thus far have given it, Aetna said.
"Reducing the gap in health care among minority populations is one of the most obvious targets for health-care improvement in the United States," said John W. Rowe, Aetna's chairman and chief executive.
Federal statistics show that minorities, and blacks in particular, suffer significantly more than whites in many health categories. For instance, blacks on average have shorter life spans; have higher rates of low-birth-weight babies, heart disease and AIDS; and are less likely to survive cancer. Studies also have found that blacks often get less aggressive care for heart attacks.
One concern about tracking race is that insurers could use the data for underwriting decisions and "make it difficult for the people who need coverage to get coverage," said Clyde Yancy, a cardiologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, who has studied racial disparities.
"The notion that we would be profiling for health circumstances is something about which we need to be very, very careful," he said.
The Wall Street Journal first reported that Aetna was collecting the data.
Aetna shares rose 37 cents to $41.98 on the New York Stock Exchange.