How the Health Insurance Industry Saved Obamacare

DrRich | August 2nd, 2010 - 9:02 am

Why Big Health Insurance Supported Obamacare, Part III


As we have seen, the fact that the health insurance industry was going to support healthcare reform after the 2008 elections was a foregone conclusion.  The question was: How would the insurance industry support healthcare reform?

When the time came, the support the insurance industry gave to President Obama’s efforts to reform healthcare followed four simple rules:

1) Do not actively oppose Obamacare. In stark contrast to its behavior during the Clinton’s effort to reform healthcare in 1993-94, this time the insurance industry never engaged its vast public relations resources to stifle healthcare reform.  There was no Harry and Louise this time. (Actually, Harry and Louise – the original actors – did make a brief appearance, but now, like the insurance industry itself, they were older, wiser, and sadder, and this time they fully supported the proposed reforms.)

2) Submit quietly to demonization.  A key strategy of the Democrats in passing Obamacare was to remind Americans repeatedly that the for-profit health insurance industry is fundamentally evil.  This strategy was based on the time-honored precept that it is easier to get the unwashed masses to cooperate through hatred than through reason, and so, to gain their cooperation, one must give them something to hate. Obviously, this strategy meant that the health insurance industry had to accept its role as the bad guys in the reform debates without complaint, and without engaging in any serious self-defense.

3) Offer subdued public support to Obamacare. The AHIP (America’s Health Insurance Plans) issued public statements that cautiously supported President Obama’s healthcare reforms. But its support had to remain subdued and tepid, since Satan can’t be seen leading the hymns.

4) Whenever necessary, rise up and demonstrate to the world just how evil you really are. At the end of the day, this was the most important role the insurance industry played in advancing Obamacare. It was certainly their most active role.

It was not a difficult role to fill. Since 1994 the health insurers had engaged in the sorts of truly evil, inhumane, and reprehensible practices that are naturally engendered by covert healthcare rationing, and that harmed or killed many of their subscribers. The only difficult part was choosing which reprehensible behaviors to feature, and when to do it.

In at least two key moments during the fight over healthcare reform – June, 2009 and February, 2010 – when the proponents of reform felt their momentum lagging, the insurance industry intervened with gratuitous behaviors whose chief function was to remind Americans just how unremittingly wicked and inhumane they really are. In the second case, at least arguably, the insurance industry turned the reform effort from apparent defeat to almost certain victory. Indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to assert that, in the end, the health insurance industry saved Obamacare.

June, 2009: Say Hello To My Little Friend

The debate over Obamacare entered a new phase in May and June of 2009.  It was during those months that the opposition to healthcare reform found its voice, and it began to seem as if perhaps the Obama steamroller could really be slowed, if not stopped. People were even beginning to say that many Democrats in Congress, after getting an earful from their constituents when they held their summer town hall meetings, would abandon any idea of supporting President Obama’s healthcare reforms.

Supporters of Obamacare decided it was time to invoke the demons.  So in mid-June, the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations called three health insurers to testify on the practice of rescission, and to face not only indignant Congresspersons, but also some of the people who had been personally harmed by their practices.

“Rescission” is when an insurance company voids subscriber’s health insurance (after happily accepting premiums from that subscriber, often for many years) once they get sick. Under some circumstances, rescission might be justifiable. It is legal and proper to cancel a policy if the subscriber is found to have purposely lied on the insurance application about a prior illness that is material to the current illness.

But health insurance companies for years have actively and aggressively practiced rescission on subscribers whose insurance applications contained inadvertent and non-material inaccuracies.  (Just to put it in perspective, this kind of bad behavior is to be expected under a system of covert healthcare rationing, which again, is rationing by whatever means you can get away with.)

Furthermore, the health insurance industry does not merely engage in occasional unfair rescission practices; it has industrialized the process. It employs health insurance detectives whose job is to comb the prior medical records of subscribers who are newly diagnosed with certain, expensive medical conditions, looking for even trivial discrepancies on insurance applications, which they can inflate to “fraudulent” omissions, thus voiding the policy. These health insurance detectives are paid by commission, according to how much money their efforts can save the company. Many of them find it a very lucrative career.

So, at the cost of perpetrating a bit of inhumanity, rescission can save insurance companies a lot of money.

Consider some of the individuals who testified in Congress along with the insurance companies that day

  • A nurse in Texas had her insurance canceled after she was diagnosed with breast cancer because she had failed to reveal that, years before, she had consulted a dermatologist about acne.
  • A man (whose surviving sister had to testify) had his insurance canceled before he could begin expensive cancer therapy, because he had not revealed (and indeed he had not known) that a prior CT scan had showed gallstones and an aneurysm – conditions unrelated to his cancer.
  • A woman had her insurance canceled – and due to the rescission could not find replacement insurance – because she failed to reveal that, at one time, she had been on medication for irregular menstruation.

During the hearing, the three health insurance executives were caused to listen to these and other incredible stories describing some of the inexcusable pain, suffering and death their unfair rescission practices had caused, and then were forced to listen to withering commentary by stunned Republicans and Democrats on the Subcommittee, whose own investigation had found that the three companies on the docket had retrospectively canceled the policies of 20,000 sick subscribers over the past 5 years.

After these heart-rending testimonies and the blistering attacks from extremely angry congresspersons, the executives were challenged by Chairman Stupak (D-Michigan) to now commit to discontinuing the practice of rescission unless intentional fraud could be shown.

All three replied, in turn, “No.”

Such a reply, in such a setting, almost defies belief. The only possible explanation, in fact, is that the insurance industry was stepping up to the plate, and embracing its assigned role as the Evil One in the great healthcare debate.

Even the most stone-hearted insurance executive can see that canceling the health insurance of a newly-diagnosed cancer patient, because she’d forgotten she’d required acne medicine before the prom 20 years ago, is just a bit unfair. But how did these three executives react? They did not attempt to deny such reprehensible behavior, or to explain it, or to defend it.  They were simply defiant about it.

One is put in mind of Tony “Scarface” Montana, bereft of friends, family, allies and bodyguards (albeit because of his own actions), hopelessly surrounded by an army of heavily-armed assassins, screaming, “Say hello to my little friend!” then launching defiantly into a wild, bloody and spectacular suicide.

One cannot for a moment believe that that Richard A. Collins, chief executive of UnitedHealth’s Golden Rule Insurance Co., Don Hamm, chief executive of Assurant Health, and Brian Sassi, president of consumer business for WellPoint Inc., would have been stupid enough to publicly defy Congress over such an indefensible practice, if doing so was against their own long-term interests.  Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, they were not auditioning for a remake of Scarface.

This is not how an industry behaves which wants to court the goodwill of Congress at a critical juncture in its life cycle. This is not the strategy of an industry that wants Congress to defy its own party’s President and defeat healthcare reform, or that is begging Congress to give them another chance to figure out how to bring healthcare costs into check. This is not the behavior of any industry that wants to elicit any sort of favorable action from Congress. Indeed, these executives would have seemed more sympathetic and deserving if they had proposed instead to place live puppies on a spit and roast them over an open fire during half-time at the Super Bowl.

There is only one explanation for their astounding public defiance on this matter. Which is, it must have suited their long-term interests.

Recall that at the time of this remarkable hearing, there was growing skepticism about President Obama’s healthcare reform efforts, not only on the part of Republicans, but also on the part of a critical minority of Democrats in Congress. And for the first time since the election, there was some question about whether his reform plan would succeed in gaining sufficient support.

What must the health insurance industry do in the face of this faltering support for its desperate end-game? It must act to bolster Obamacare.

In this light the stark, defiant, public “no” uttered by the three insurance executives makes sense. “Look at us,” they were saying, “See how evil we are! We are utterly devoid of human decency, ethical obligations, or a sense of fair play. If we behave this defiantly when we are in the position of mere supplicants to your eminences, just think how we will behave if you fail to rein us in with new reforms!  Abandon all hope, those of you who rely on us for your healthcare, and behold the congressional dogs that placed us in this position of power over your very lives!”

Given the headwinds the healthcare reform effort was to face during the next nine months, it is difficult to say with any certainty how much good the insurance industry did in June, 2009, when it took such an extraordinary step to remind Americans just how incredibly evil it is. But when the time came to help boost the President’s reform efforts, nobody can deny that the insurance industry stepped up and did its duty.

February, 2010: Raising Obamacare From The Dead

Things looked especially bleak for healthcare reform in early February of 2010.  The incredible, possibly Constitution-defying, machinations Congress employed in its desperate attempt to pass healthcare reform had disgusted a majority of Americans, and momentum was clearly shifting to the opponents of Obamacare. And when Republican Scott Brown incredibly won the Senate seat in Massachusetts, robbing the Democrats of their crucial, filibuster-blocking 60th vote, many thought healthcare reform was dead.

But then out of nowhere, in early February, Wellpoint’s California subsidiary, Anthem Blue Cross, announced it was raising its already-astronomical health insurance premiums by as much as 39%, a move that promised to greatly increase the number of Californians who are uninsured.

The demoralized Democrats in the administration greedily capitalized on this new opportunity.

Kathleen Sebelius immediately fired off a very public letter to the company, demanding that they justify this unconscionable rate increase. And Wellpoint, lustily assuming its assigned role as villain, was delighted to reply, equally publicly.

We’re in a recession, Wellpoint brazenly asserted, and in a recession, like it or not, people exercise their prerogative to drop their health insurance. The only people who don’t drop their health insurance are the sick people, or those who are likely to become sick, which means that our cost per subscriber goes way up. So naturally, we have to increase premiums. By a lot. It’s just business. That’s just the nature of our current, unreformed healthcare system. So choke on it.

Wellpoint was also kind enough to mention (for anyone dense enough to have missed the point) that the need for higher insurance premiums would be nicely mitigated if everybody was mandated by the government to purchase health insurance.

Wellpoint’s anounced premium increase immediately triggered great volumes of delighted outrage by thankful Democrats, who desperately needed a large dose of “evil insurance company” at just that time. Wellpoint’s action reignited the proponents of healthcare reform, who were inspired to remind all Americans that this is what would happen to everyone if healthcare reform failed, and the greedy insurance companies had their way.

Stunned Republicans, seeing their impending victory over Obamacare evaporating before their eyes, could only issue a few lame and uncomfortable attempts to diminish the significance of Wellpoint’s unfortunate action.  But to little avail. The momentum had shifted. At least arguably, it was Wellpoint’s decision to announce an unconscionable rate increase at this extremely critical juncture that put healthcare reform back on the road to adoption.

From a pure business standpoint, there was no good reason for Wellpoint to stir the soup at that moment. Wellpoint is the most financially sound private health insurance company. While its California subsidiary did lose money in 2009, overall the company performed quite well, and reported a very nice profit growth for the year. And with several of its competitors in trouble, Wellpoint stood to do comparatively well for the foreseeable future.

Furthermore, it has since been learned that Wellpoint’s math was bad. An independent actuary working for the California Department of Insurance reported on May 5, 2010 that the company had made “numerous errors” in calculating is rate increases, and further, that Wellpoint could cut its rate hikes substantially, and still meet its required 70% medical-loss ratio threshold.

It stands to reason that if Wellpoint really wanted healthcare reform to go away, they would have first checked their math before announcing seismic rate increases, and then, if such astounding rate increases were really needed, they would have waited a few months – while Obamacare died – before announcing their rate hike.

The last thing they would have done is to throw the reformers a critical lifeline just as they were going under for the last time.

In any case Wellpoint’s action, especially at that moment, seems entirely gratuitous. Wellpoint could only have chosen to do its demon dance, at such an inopportune moment, in order to revive Obamacare during its darkest hour.

And that’s precisely what happened.

In the final post in this series of articles, we will take a look at the implications of the insurance industry’s support of Obamacare, as we who find Obamacare less than desirable contemplate what we ought to do about it.

Why Big Health Insurance Supported Obamacare

Part I – Another Reason He Should Have Kept the Bust

Part II – Why the Health Insurance Industry Supported Obamacare

Part IV – What It Means That the Health Insurance Industry Saved Obamacare

Now, read the whole story.

DrRich explains it all in, Fixing American Healthcare – Wonkonians, Gekkonians and the Grand Unification Theory of Healthcare.

Now on Kindle!

3 Responses to “How the Health Insurance Industry Saved Obamacare”

  1. Liz says:

    One more rule for your list, DrRich:

    5) Write the actual legislation.

    • DrRich says:

      Thanks, Liz. The Wellpoint Gambit in February, which ultimately rescued Obamacare, seemed so well-coordinated that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn there are a lot of sub rosa arrangements, such as you have discovered, between that company (and other health insurers) and the administration.


You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply