NY investigating UnitedHealth over use of allegedly racially biased algorithm

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 2: A chair in an examination room on October 2, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

The New York State Department of Financial Services and the Department of Health have said they are launching an investigation into an algorithm made by UnitedHealth Group that a study found to be racially biased against black patients.

In a letter sent to UnitedHealth Group, New York lawmakers said that the algorithm, Impact Pro, “significantly underestimates health needs for black patients,” citing a recent study published in the journal Science.

“These discriminatory results, whether intentional or not, are unacceptable and are unlawful in New York,” Linda Lacewell, superintendent of New York's department of financial services, and Howard Zucker, commissioner of the department of health, wrote in the letter. “We call on you to immediately investigate these reports and demonstrate that this algorithm is not racially discriminatory or to cease using Impact Pro (or any other data analytics program) if you cannot demonstrate that it does not rely on racial biases or perpetuate racially disparate impacts.”

According to a report in Business Insider, the algorithm predicted that black patients would cost less, signaling to medical providers that their illnesses were not as severe as white patients. However, in reality, black patients’ costs were lower because they did not purchase healthcare services as often on average as white patients due to a lack of access and general mistrust in the system. 

“This is why reports of the discriminatory effects from your algorithm’s reliance on past health costs are so troubling,” the letter read. “A black patient’s actual medical needs may not be accurately captured by his or her prior health costs. By relying on historic spending to triage and diagnose current patients, your algorithm appears to inherently prioritize white patients who have had greater access to healthcare than black patients.”