Big Insurance Shows Its Hand – Or at Least Its Finger

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Big Insurance Shows Its Hand – Or at Least Its Finger

Donna Smith

When the day began, I sipped coffee with Hilda and Krikor Sarkisyan of Northridge, California, in a hotel restaurant as we waited to go confront the Cigna executives who denied their 17-year-old daughter's liver transplant. Nataline died last December. As this day closed, I sat across from an RN who was crying with sadness and rage for the Sarkisyan's loss and the absolute horror of what we experienced together in the Cigna lobby today.

If ever we needed proof of why the for-profit health insurance industry cannot be trusted with our health and well-being, we saw it today. We saw today the cruelty; we saw today all the reasons why we cannot trust that which we know we cannot trust. The lack of human compassion and the outright obscenity of the broken system have somehow codified into reality for us all a pattern of delays and denials of care that never can be reversed. Allowing a child to die –someone else's child – has somehow become acceptable behavior, and we have allowed chronic abuse of our trust to flourish and to be explained away by insurance executives who cannot tell the truth.

At Cigna, we walked into the lobby and moved toward the elevators that led to the inner sanctum of one of the nation's largest health insurance companies. Though Cigna security held the line as Hilda and Krikor protested and demanded an audience with the CEO, Edward Hanway, the company sent down their PR guy, Chris Curran, to do their dirty work and to put off our protesters – the grieving parents and their nurses. They were ringed now by many of the same nurses of the California Nurses Association and the National Nurses Organizing Committee who had held them together on the day last December when Cigna allowed their daughter to die as the company first denied and then safely – for their revenue side, anyway – approved the needed transplant too late to save Nataline.

During the protest today we all looked up to see a group of people looking over the mezzanine railings above us. They must have been looking down at us during the whole protest. Hilda called up, "Do you work for Cigna?" And suddenly what we saw was too horrific to be believed.

One of the young men "flipped off" Hilda and Krikor – with gestures on both hands. We all let out a collective scream of disbelief. The young man quickly retreated from his perch. It was a moment I do not think any of us will ever forget.

A Cigna employee obscenely gestures parents of a dead teenager and guess what? Cigna called the police to have the protesters removed from the lobby. The young man in the blue shirt who spoke for Cigna with his assault of Hilda and Krikor was not the target of the Cigna police call. The parents were deemed the threat. Parents and patients who need treatment and thereby spend company profits are threatening to Cigna and all other insurance companies. These are not the people who can be trusted with our healthcare or that of our children.

Either this was a young man thinking it somehow cute to defend his company by assaulting these parents or he was actually doing so on behalf of the company. No matter what explanation we could imagine, none makes it OK that Cigna allowed this to happen in their offices and did not protect these parents – instead they protected themselves.

And they would do so again and again and again – as grieving, begging families who pay for their insurance premiums find themselves burying children, other loved ones, friends and neighbors.

As I stood holding the shaking ribs of a father too strained with grief to stand alone, I wondered why anyone would ever want a company like Cigna in the mix. Family values don't have a chance on this company's agenda; life is devalued and only the almighty dollar holds the power.

Cigna, as one of the nation's largest and proudest insurers, stands as a representative of an industry gone mad on its own power and greed. And as such, they handled this very poorly. But they handled it as might have been expected. Take heed. The only insurance these companies provide is to protect their own wealth and status – not the nation's, not your child's and certainly not your own.

When our new Congress goes to work on healthcare reform next year, Cigna and the likes of them cannot be in play. And no matter who says private insurance is good for the nation, it is a lie – it is a rude and abusive and destructive lie as delivered clearly and concisely today. Even if we want to trust well-intentioned people (even a very beloved one from Massachussets) who believe insuring more people is the way to the promised land, we must all recall today and that the insurance company representative allowed an assault on Hilda and on Krikor – and all the rest of us who trusted them to provide what they said they were providing.

Our gesture in response must be to end this madness. For-profit, private insurance can never substitute for single-payer, publicly funded, privately delivered care – and doctors and nurses and patients must be deciding together what the best course of treatment may be – not an insurance company employee whose overwhelming urge to "flip-off" the patient will guide the decision.

Horrifying, illuminating... and only offset by wrapping these parents in the love and support of 80,000 nurses who would never, ever demean their loss.

Donna Smith is a community organizer for the California Nurses Association and National Co-Chair, Progressive Democrats of America Healthcare Not Warfare campaign

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