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The Marie Antoinette of Health Insurance and How to Dethrone Her

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The Marie Antoinette of Health Insurance

Two years ago, as federal health reform lay on death's door, CEO Angela Braly, head of Blue Cross' parent company Wellpoint, spit on beleaguered patients. She sat through poignant Congressional testimony from customers whose lives were being ruined by spiraling premium hikes, then Braly testified that the public outrage was "a triumph of sound bites over substance."

The CEO's arrogance and Anthem Blue Cross' planned 39 percent rate hike were enough to revive federal reform in the court of public opinion. The federal law passed, but failed to give California the power to reject unreasonable rate hikes.

That's why, on May 1, one million Californians began paying hundreds of millions of dollars more for their health insurance. It's a plot right out of Groundhog Day, only it happens every spring, winter, summer and fall.

Recently Braly, the health insurance world's Marie Antoinette, was at it again, only in a more intimate setting. On a conference call with shareholders she attacked a pending rate regulation ballot measure in California as unnecessary because she said federal reform was all patients needed. In other words, Braly's advice for the one million who face a choice between paying for food or health insurance: Let 'em eat cake.

Want to fight back? The final signatures are being collected in the next couple of days to submit 800,000 signatures for a ballot petition taking power from Braly and the other monarchs of health insurance to raise rates whenever they want without any justification.

Californians can download and sign the ballot petition at JustifyRates.org and vote in November to require Anthem Blue Cross and other health insurance companies to get permission before they raise rates. But voters have to sign today in order to mail back the ballot petition in time to have theirs' delivered with the other 800,000 Californians demanding this change.

Health insurance rates are like a runaway train and there's no police force or firefighting squad with the power to stop them. Thirty-five states require health insurance companies to get permission before raising rates, but not California.

Patients pay the price.

In Studio City, a self-employed single mom watched her health insurance premium triple over the last decade. On May 1st the price climbed by 16 percent. She asks,"If I have to get pre-approval from my insurance company every time I want my health care paid for, shouldn't they have to get approval when they want me to pay more?"

For a decade the legislature has answered no, arguing, exactly as Braly does, that the market and federal health care reform can be trusted to moderate rates. We can see how well enlightened despotism has worked in health care.

Over the last decade health insurance premiums have shot up 153 percent -- growing five times the rate of inflation (29 percent). Four companies, including Anthem Blue Cross, control 71 percent of the health insurance market -- competition isn't in the cards. As a result, Californians don't just move to cheaper plans, they also drop insurance. California has one of the nation's highest uninsured rates.

Since 2003, the California legislature has refused to pass a law requiring that health insurance companies get approval before raising rates in the same way that auto insurance and home insurance companies have to today. That insurance company lobbying power is why consumer advocates like myself have joined with Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones to qualify the ballot measure that requires health insurance companies to live up to the same standards as other insurance companies.

It's high time to dethrone Braly and the other health insurance monarchs who are accountable to no patient and no insurance commissioner in the state of California. They raise rates because they can, not because it's necessary. 800,000 California voters are about to take on Braly's "Let 'em eat cake" corporate views. Act now and you can be with us.

Jamie Court is the president of Consumer Watchdog and the proponent of the proposed ballot measure, the Insurance Rate Public Justification and Accountability Act, being circulated at www.JustifyRates.org