David Hoppe

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:: Thank you, health insurers

Your greed could get us real reform

By David Hoppe

When you go to the WellPoint health insurance web site, you are greeted with a slideshow of testimonials from WellPoint employees. Each testimonial starts with a banner headline: "I love helping people," says one. "I work with compassionate, caring colleagues," says another. "Our work really makes a difference," proclaims a third.

Makes you want to work for WellPoint.

What a great thing it would be to work in a business where the halls are practically drenched with the milk of human kindness. Especially when that business has what amounts to a license to print money. Talk about a win-win!

That appears to be the deal if you're a health insurer in the United States. Last week we learned that the cost of health insurance premiums jumped nine percent in the past year. This was the largest increase in six years, with annual premiums for families reaching $15,073, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research & Educational Trust.

Employers are picking up most of these costs. On average, this amounts to $10,944 to cover workers and their families; employees pay about $4,129.

Maybe you've been wondering why you haven't gotten a raise in, oh, a decade or so. That raise is being eaten by the cost of your health insurance. In case you've given up trying to figure out how much what you're "contributing" for your health benefits has grown since 1999 (if you have health benefits), get a load of this: 168 percent.

Think about that.

Since 1999, the amount employees pay for health benefits has gone up 168 percent. That's more than three times the rate of earnings during that time, and more than four times the rate of inflation.

But wait, you say, how can this be? Didn't we get health care reform passed last year?

Yes, legislation was passed. The trouble is that legislation didn't deal with reforming the health care system so much as it protected health insurers. It was not for nothing that health insurers contributed $20 million to Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.

And the fact is, President Obama blew his chance to do anything real about health care reform when he took the possibility of a single payer, Medicare for All option off the table before negotiations even began. The result, as writer Kevin Zeese reported on Truthout last March, at the health care legislation's one-year anniversary, is that Americans lacking any health coverage still number over 50 million; over 45,000 deaths are occurring annually due to lack of health insurance; and 40 million Americans, including 10 million children, are underinsured.

Zeese wrote that "a new norm" is taking hold. "The trend in health insurance is rising premiums and shrinking coverage for many Americans who get their coverage at work as well as on the individual insurance market."

Zeese continued: "Underinsurance, requiring Americans to pay more of the cost of health care, may become the norm because of the 2010 law. The new law will hasten the current trend toward underinsurance as plans where patients pay an average of 40 percent of their health care bills qualify to fulfill the employers' obligations to provide coverage rather than pay an assessment."

Remember when we were told that health insurance would become ":affordable?" That word, affordable, was an escape clause for insurance companies, enabling them to offer inadequate policies at a price the government would allow. As Zeese pointed out, "waivers to the requirements of the 2010 law are being widely granted, resulting in millions of Americans continuing to have inadequate health coverage." The administration, reported Zeese, says the purpose of these waivers is to avoid disruption of the insurance market.

No, we wouldn't want to disrupt an industry in this country that has posted record profits three years in a row. During the first three months of 2010 - at the same time health care, er health insurance legislation was being passed, the five largest American health insurance companies reported profits of $3.2 billion, an increase of 31 percent over the same period in 2009, according to advocacy group Health Care for America Now.

The one bit of silver lining in this palpitating cloud is that workers and, especially, employers may finally be waking up to the full effects of health insurers' greed. If peoples' pay continues being sucked up by higher premiums to pay for lower quality care, our consumer-based economy can never, repeat never, fully recover.

This means that we all have to take a deep breath and start over on health care legislation that really accomplishes structural reforms.

And that means demanding the government do what it's supposed to do: represent all Americans and negotiate health care costs on behalf of everyone in this country. A pool of 300 million people would represent a hefty bargaining chip - and a pretty attractive client, if you want to think of it that way.

The "Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act," H.R. 676, is a bill that has actually been introduced in Congress by Rep. John Conyers. It could save our economy - but even better, it might even save your life.