New Jersey senator and presidential contender Cory Booker is demanding accountability from some of the nation's biggest insurance companies after a major academic paper found that healthcare algorithms could have discriminated against sick, black patients.
The Democratic presidential hopeful, along with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), sent a letter to the five largest healthcare companies in the US ordering them to provide information on how they prevent bias in algorithms. The healthcare providers mentioned were UnitedHealth, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Cigna, Humana, and Aetna.
The senators also asked the Federal Trade Commission and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services questions regarding how the units have prevented algorithmic bias in health systems so far. They've also requested that the FTC commit to investigate how algorithms discriminate against marginalized communities, per a press release.
Booker and Wyden's letter shines a national policy spotlight on the issue of racial bias embedded within healthcare algorithms, which has become a growing investment for major providers.
In October, a study published in the prestigious journal Science found a common algorithm used to diagnose patients favored treating white patients over sicker black ones between 2013 to 2015. The algorithm, Impact Pro, used projected cost to identify which patients would benefit most from complex health treatments.
Impact Pro's algorithm, employed by UnitedHealth, predicted black patients cost less than white patients, therefore their illnesses must not be as complex. Yet, in reality, black patients cost less because they don't purchase healthcare services as much as white people on average.
The study comes at a time when health companies are pouring investments into AI. Business Insider Intelligence predicts that spending on healthcare AI is projected to grow by 48% between 2017 and 2023.
Soon after the study was published, New York's state departments of financial services and health sent a letter to UnitedHealth condemning its use of Impact Pro, calling the use of the program “unlawful.”
“In using algorithms, organizations often attempt to remove human flaws and biases from the process,” Booker and Wyden wrote to the health companies. “Unfortunately, both the people who design these complex systems, and the massive sets of data that are used, have many historical and human biases built in. Without very careful consideration, the algorithms they subsequently create can further perpetuate those very biases.”
Business Insider has reached out to the five healthcare companies for comment.