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Dr. Quentin Young Headshot

Health care drama at America's crossroads

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The movement for single-payer health reform - an improved Medicare for All - is hopping in Indianapolis, "the Crossroads of America."

I can personally vouch for this, having taken part in two events there on May 18 sponsored by Hoosiers for a Commonsense Health Plan and several other groups committed to health care justice.

The occasion? The annual shareholders meeting of WellPoint, the giant for-profit health insurance company.

For the fourth year in a row, a small group of energetic and principled shareholders led by Dr. Rob Stone of Bloomington, Ind., attended the annual meeting with the aim of speaking truth to power. They sought to direct shareholders' and the media's attention to some of WellPoint's most egregious practices, including (as Dr. Stone eloquently describes here) its astronomical premium hikes on individuals and businesses, its notorious algorithm for canceling insurance policies of women predisposed to breast cancer, and - in an evasion of parts of the new health law - its relabeling of administrative expenses as "medical care."

This year, in their latest bid to move WellPoint away from its corporate-greed and service-denial posture, Dr. Stone and others successfully introduced a shareholder resolution calling upon the company to demutualize - i.e. to return to its original, nonprofit status. (WellPoint was once a nonprofit, charitable Blue Cross company.)

The subtext was clear: WellPoint should concern itself with maximizing health care rather than profits.

It was this shareholder resolution calling on WellPoint to be socially responsible that prompted local organizers to invite me to participate in two related activities in Indianapolis that day - an afternoon health reform rally ("Health reform - we're still for it!") and a subsequent strategy session with regional activists - for I had played a modest role in pushing a precedent-setting, similar shareholder resolution some four decades ago.

In 1968, the Medical Committee for Human Rights (where I was then chairman), was given 10 shares of stock in the Dow Chemical Company. Dow was the leading manufacturer of napalm, a jellied gasoline, which was being used widely by the U.S. military in the war in Vietnam, including on its civilian population.

MCHR's leadership developed a shareholder resolution calling on Dow's board to stipulate "that napalm shall not be sold to any buyer unless that buyer gives reasonable assurances that the substance will not be used on or against human beings."

To make a long story short, after being rebuffed by Dow's board, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and various courts, the legitimacy of our resolution was eventually upheld and the measure was ultimately voted upon. While it got less than 3 percent of the shareholders' votes, the effort helped to pave the way for many other "socially responsible" shareholder resolutions in subsequent years - including this year's WellPoint resolution.

I must admit that I experienced a certain sense of satisfaction in seeing MCHR's human concerns of four decades ago finding strong expression in today's context.

Dr. Stone briefly presented his resolution in the morning and then, a bit later in the meeting, his colleagues (and other shareholders) readied themselves to participate in the question and answer session.

But then an interesting, unanticipated event gave drama and an unexpected twist to the meeting. A member of WellPoint's board, William "Bucky" Bush (brother of George H.W. and uncle to George W.), fainted. The immediate first aid came from Dr. Stone, a seasoned ER doc, and Mr. Bush proceeded to recover promptly.

Nonetheless, WellPoint CEO Angela Braly (whose annual compensation was recently boosted to $13.1 million), who was chairing the meeting, seized on this incident to abruptly adjourn the session, thereby short-circuiting the discussion period. This was bad, but certainly not the worst conduct of the WellPoint organization.

Even so, consider this: a subsequent tally showed that Dr. Stone's resolution calling for WellPoint to return to nonprofit status received 9.4 percent of the shareholder votes, representing over 30 million shares!

This extraordinary development, and the well-attended rally and activists' meeting that followed the shareholders meeting, are symptomatic of persistent national unrest with the present financing of our health care system, based as it is on private health insurers. The passage of the new health law has not addressed that unrest.

Physicians for a National Health Program argues forcefully that the central problem in our current health system is embodied in corporate giants like WellPoint. PNHP, sadly, feels that the new health law on balance actually increases the stranglehold of these corporate interests on our health system, with dire results in cost, quality and access.

For this reason, all of our endeavors seek to establish single-payer national health insurance, an improved Medicare for All: "Everybody in, nobody out."

The Indianapolis events demonstrate the continuing vigor and commitment of single-payer health advocates nationwide.

We must continue to strive to join the rest of the world's democratic, industrialized nations in achieving a truly universal, comprehensive health care system. Such an achievement will not only enhance the health status of our people but arguably will rescue our failing economy as well.