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UnitedHealthcare to keep parts of health reforms regardless of court ruling

Health cost headlines, stethoscope and rising graph
Health cost headlines, stethoscope and rising graph iStockphoto

(CBS News) The Supreme Court this month could overturn all or parts of President Obama's landmark 2010 health care overhaul -- but even so, at least one major health insurer plans to voluntarily keep in place some of the reforms.

UnitedHealthcare on Monday announced that regardless of the court's decision, it will continue to offer some consumer protections and services that the law mandated: Allowing children up to the age of 26 to remain on their parents' health plan, coverage of preventive health services without co-pays, the elimination of lifetime dollar limits on policies, the elimination of rescissions (or retroactive termination of coverage), and the implementation of a clear appeals process.

The decision will ensure that a large swath of consumers will continue to benefit from some of the more popular elements of Mr. Obama's controversial law -- UnitedHealthcare serves more than 38 million people, making it one of the nation's largest insurers.

It could also alter the political fallout from the high court's decision. Should the Supreme Court reject Mr. Obama's law, the president could point to UnitedHealthcare's announcement to validate his policy agenda. However, should the court strike down the law, the practical impact could be less clear to voters, making the issue less of a galvanizing force for the left.

The Supreme Court heard arguments over the law's constitutionality in March, and the court is expected to hand down its decision between now and June 28.

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Stephen Hemsley, president and CEO of UnitedHealth Group, said in a statement his company is keeping the provisions in place because they "are compatible with our mission."

"The protections we are voluntarily extending are good for people's health, promote broader access to quality care and contribute to helping control rising health care costs," he said. "These provisions make sense for the people we serve, and it is important to ensure they know these provisions will continue."

The court's rulings and the consequences are hard to know at this point. The one certainty is that the court's consideration of the case is putting Mr. Obama's controversial health care law back in the spotlight squarely in the middle of the 2012 presidential race -- a move sure to rekindle the partisan passion that in part drove Democratic voters in 2008 and Republican voters in 2010.

A CBS News/New York Times poll released last week reveals that nearly seven in 10 Americans want the Supreme Court to overturn either all or President Obama's health care law or strike down just the individual mandate.

While a plurality of Americans want the health care law to be overturned, a CBS News/ New York Times Poll conducted in March illustrated the popularity of some of the provisions that UnitedHealthcare is keeping in place: Nearly seven in ten supported children under 26 staying on their parents' health plan. Additionally, 85 percent said insurance companies should cover people with pre-existing conditions.

Currently, under the health care law, insurers are barred from discriminating against children with pre-existing conditions. That protection is slated to be extended to all Americans in 2014.

In its announcement today, UnitedHealthcare said it recognizes the value of coverage for children up to age 19 with pre-existing conditions. However, the company's release said, "One company acting alone cannot take that step, so UnitedHealthcare is committed to working with all other participants in the health care system to sustain that coverage."

While the provision to protect Americans from pre-existing conditions is among the most popular, the Obama administration argued that the element of the law is critically tied to the requirement for all Americans to purchase insurance-- one of the least popular elements of the law.

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