05/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Thanks Blue Cross, You Gave The Public Its Reason To Reform

The President called for an up or down vote on health care reform, but I can say from my own experience this week working with Blue Cross patients, who are part of Consumer Watchdog's lawsuit against the company, that the public has already cast its vote. Go for it, now!

At a press conference announcing the lawsuit, at the California Nurses Association headquarters in Oakland Tuesday, I had a profound sense that Anthem Blue Cross's big mistake, its sudden massive premium hikes on beleaguered Californians, had given finally reformers the opportunity we have been missing for two decades.

The insurer's arrogance, the visceral bi-partisan repudiation its spawned, and the clamoring of the public and opinion for real action is catalyzing a real movement for change. It's human, it's honest, and it won't go away because it's not built on a Washington policy paper, but authentic anger at how insurance companies, on a moment's notice, can change and ruin lives. Where denials of coverage by health insurers strike only the sick, a relative few, premium increases hit home across the board.

Mary Feller, who pays more for health insurance than for her mortgage, deeply moved the room of nurses and reporters at the press conference, as well as viewers of the evening news. She talked from the heart about the great hardship endured by her family and her 26 year old daughter, who is recovering from cancer. Feller is a lead plaintiff in our case over Blue Cross's shutting down of long-time policies without offering comparable benefits. The lawsuit alleges Blue Cross violated California law when it tried to force patients into policies with lower benefits and higher deductibles, just before massively raising their premiums. The law says insurers have to offer a comparable policy when closing existing ones.

Longtime KTVU consumer reporter Tom Vacar put it to the nurses and us clearly. Are you prepared to file a ballot measure regulating health insurer premiums the way auto and home insurance premiums are under Prop 103? Nurses leaders, long time and staunch advocates of single payer, were so moved by the plight of Blue Cross patients, and by Feller, that they acknowledged something had to be done now, because people are dying.

The California legislature, which has twice rejected requiring health insurers to get prior approval before raising premiums, may yet act before summer on such a proposal. Governor Schwarzenegger may even sign such a bill. Our lawsuit has a very good chance of succeeding sooner rather than later given the spotlight on this issue. Congress could give the President what he wants, including power for the executive branch to step in and stop unreasonable premium increases when the state government doesn't. And that's just the beginning.

It has to be. If Congress tells Americans that they must buy individual health insurance policies, or face a tax penalty, then Congress and the states are going to have to fix everything that's the matter with health insurance or offer a public alternative to the private market. That's when the fun really starts and real answers to what ails American health care will be found.

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