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David Dayen

David Dayen

Posted: August 28, 2009 05:51 PM

New York Times' Insurance Industry Tearjerker Tries To Change The Subject From Industry Practices


The New York Times published a very nice press release from the desk of Humana, one of the nation's largest health insurance companies. The reporter interviewed a bunch of employees at Humana, all of whom were horrified to see themselves depicted as "villains" in the health care debate. I agree with Yves Smith, this is an absurd angle for a story, an extreme example of selection bias. The people who work at Humana probably have a sense that their employer, um, pays their salary, and thusly, what's good for the employer is probably good for them. Similarly, most people hold a favorable opinion of themselves just as a matter of getting through the day. Not to mention the fact that their understanding of the functioning of Humana is limited to their job description. It is not possible to gain much of a perspective on the health care debate or industry practices by asking a mid-level manager "Do you think you're the worst person alive?"

As Smith writes,

Since when is it legitimate, much the less newsworthy, to get a company's perception on its embattled status, at least without introducing either some contrary opinion or better yet, facts, to counter the views of people who will inevitably see what they are doing as right? I hate to draw an extreme comparison to make the point, but staff in Nazi concentration camps also thought they were good people. It is well documented that for all save the depressed, people's assessments of their own behavior is biased in their favor.

There is some revelatory stuff in the article, however. David Sirota flags one employee saying that Humana believes in keeping down costs by "controlling utilization":

Now, I know we're supposed to think that private for-profit health care companies don't ration care, while government-run programs like Medicare do - but as the insurance industry admits right here for all to see, that's just not the case. The obvious truth is that the health insurance industry works hard to "control utilization" - that is, it works hard to make sure that when you need a costly medical service, you are "controlled" (read: prevented) from getting it.

Sure, we're all against excessive testing - and there are good ways to deal with those inefficiencies. But that's not what the insurance industry is talking about. It is talking about its practice of rationing care - and now that reality is right there in black and white for all to see.


The truth of the matter is that many of the charges that insurance companies like WellPoint level at the public option and regulatory changes sought in the health reform bill mirror accepted industry practices. WellPoint, which emailed its own customers yesterday attacking the Democratic plan, claimed that health reform will "increase the premiums of those with private coverage." Yet WellPoint routinely hikes their own premium prices by close to double digits annually, leading to ever-increasing profits. The email stated that millions of Americans would lose their private coverage and be forced onto a government-run option if the Democratic bill passed (nothing could be further from the truth); yet WellPoint routinely uses the practice of rescission to drop their own customers from coverage if they ever try to use it, and they've admitted they would continue doing so unless forced to stop by law.


The email is an example of the astroturf practices from the industry, including, no doubt, pitching to the New York Times a story putting the human face on insurers. Many of these astroturf efforts spring from the same sources as the corporate lobby groups activating the tea party protests at town hall meetings throughout the country this August. They're trying to change the subject, away from facts, like how they're spending less of their premium revenue on medical care over the years, from 90% in the early 1990s to around 80% today. Or how they use rescission and pre-existing condition to make profits off cherry-picking the healthy and denying everyone else care. House and Senate leaders have requested more and more information about insurance company practices; Dennis Kucinich has joined that effort. But the insurance industry, while nominally siding with reform, wants to keep the focus on efforts against it, in service to de-fanging it.

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