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Wendell Potter Headshot

Health Insurers to Consumers: Want to Know What You're Buying Before You Buy It? Only If You Pay for It

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A couple of years ago, when Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia asked me to testify about little-known health insurance industry practices at a hearing of his Senate Commerce Committee, I initially was reluctant. I knew that if I was completely honest, my life would change forever.

What he was asking me to do was to disclose practices that have contributed to the growing number of Americans without insurance, the even faster growing number of us who are underinsured, and the phenomenal increase in insurance industry profits over the years, even as the ranks of those without coverage swelled.

The purpose of the hearing was to determine what Congress could do to require insurance companies to provide more pertinent and comprehensible information to their enrollees and prospective enrollees to help them understand what they were buying. What could the government do, the senators wanted to know, to help consumers figure out their benefits, compare different policies, and truly understand what would be covered and what wouldn't, and what their total financial obligations would be, including out-of-pocket costs, in the event of sickness or injury.

I agreed to testify in hopes that, as an insider -- an insurance industry executive for two decades -- I might be helpful as members of Congress drafted this important part of larger legislation to reform the U.S. health care system, especially the health insurance industry. Without disclosure, it's hard to understand what you're paying for -- and what you can count on in return.

Two long-time advocates of greater transparency joined me on the panel: Karen Pollitz, then research professor at Georgetown University's Health Policy Institute, who would later join Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius' consumer information and insurance oversight education team, and Nancy Metcalf, senior editor at Consumer Reports. Both of them encouraged the senators to require insurers to provide not only useful and understandable information but to do so in a standard format. Without that, they argued, consumers still would not be able to compare one health plan with another.

I couldn't have agreed more. In my remarks, I told the committee how insurers deliberately confuse their customers and dump the sick -- all so they can satisfy their Wall Street investors.
I went on to say that insurers "make promises they have no intention of keeping, flout regulations designed to protect consumers, and make it nearly impossible to understand -- or even to obtain -- information we need."

This was deliberate, I told the committee, because the more confused and ill-informed consumers are, the more money insurers make off of them.

Members of Congress heard us. The legislation that finally reached the president many months later included requirements for insurers -- and employers that offer coverage to their workers -- to be more up-front and honest with us.

Last week, the Obama administration released the long-anticipated disclosure rules that insurers and employers will have to comply with starting next year. In announcing the new rules, Sebelius said the new "summary of benefits and coverage" would make it possible for the first time for consumers to makes apples-to-apples comparisons between one health plan and another.

One of the things that most impressed me with Karen Pollitz's testimony back in 2009 was her suggestion that this summary of benefits and coverage be displayed in a format like the "Nutrition Facts" labels on food products.

I was pleased to see last Wednesday that HHS is proposing rules that would largely accomplish what Pollitz recommended, although some consumer advocates said they thought the rules should have gone further. That's undoubtedly true, but what the administration is proposing is far more than consumers have today.

By March 23 of next year -- two years after President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law -- insurers will have to provide information not only about the premium but also about the overall deductible of a certain policy. They will also have to disclose, among other things, whether the health plan requires policyholders to use certain doctors and if referrals to specialists are required and whether there is a limit on a policyholder's expenses and on what the insurer will pay.

Additionally, insurers will have to provide definitions of certain terms and to provide examples of the costs that consumers could expect to pay under a given health plan for, say, having a baby or being treated for diabetes.

As you can imagine, the insurance industry is pushing back, saying insurers and employers need more time to comply and warning that compliance will cause the cost of policies to rise.
There is no doubt about it, complying with the new disclosure requirement will mean that insurers will have to spend some money they've never been willing to spend before to provide us with the information we need and in language we can understand.

The tab is likely to be about $50 million, according to the Obama administration.
In response to the proposed new rules, America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the lobbying group for insurers, issued this statement:

Health plans increasingly provide user-friendly online tools and clear materials to make sure that consumers understand the benefits and costs of their health insurance policies. The benefits of providing a new summary of coverage document must be balanced against the increased administrative burden and higher costs to consumers and employers.

Hogwash. First, consumers need information before they enroll in a health plan, not just afterwards. The online tools and materials AHIP referred to in its statement typically are available only to people already enrolled. Second, insurers can comply with the new rules without charging consumers and employers another nickel. All the insurers will have to do is redirect some of the billions of dollars they already spend on marketing, advertising, sales and underwriting every year, activities of little if any value to most consumers.

AHIP claims to represent more than 1,300 health plans. Well, between 2001 and 2010, just the five largest of those 1,300 collectively made more than $76 billion in profits. If just five companies made that much money, imagine how much all 1,300 of them pulled in.

The insurance industry comprises a bunch of very prosperous and profitable corporations that could spend $50 million to comply with these new rules -- and finally give us information they should have been providing all along -- and not even miss it.

It would be hardly more than a rounding error to even one of the big companies.
It's about time the government took action to end these companies' practices that -- yes, I'll have to say it again -- "make it nearly impossible to understand, or even to obtain, information we need."

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